31 Oct 2010

Bill on Childhood Sexual Abuse Suits Is Amended to Add an Age Limit

The New York Times - June 5, 2009

by Paul Vitello

Many abuse victims were disappointed, and a key State Senate ally was taken by surprise, when the Assembly sponsor of a bill temporarily waiving legal deadlines for filing child sex-abuse lawsuits amended the legislation on Friday to propose a significant restriction.

In the second major revision this week, Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, a Queens Democrat, told supporters that her bill would now establish 53 as the maximum age for anyone wishing to file suit claiming sexual abuse as a child.

“While I am absolutely committed to the right of every victim to have full access to justice for their claims,” she wrote in a memo addressed to “friends and supporters” of the Child Victims’ Act of New York, as the bill is called, “the adoption of this bill this year is a critical first step that we must take.”

In its original version, Ms. Markey’s bill would have established a one-time 12-month grace period during which any suit previously barred by the statute of limitations could be filed, regardless of how long ago the abuse was alleged to have occurred. At the end of that time, the statute of limitations would resume, but with a more liberal time allowance than is currently allowed. The current limitation, requiring victims to file suit within five years of turning 18 (by age 23) would be increased to give them 10 years after reaching 18.

Lawyers for childhood sex abuse plaintiffs estimated that the new restriction could eliminate as many as a third of the suits that might have been filed within the one-time grace period.

While it won passage without amendment in the Democrat-controlled Assembly in each of the three previous years, the bill never went any further because of opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate. This year, however, with the Senate newly controlled by Democrats, the bill is viable — and has met stiff opposition.

Religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and some Orthodox Jewish groups, have lobbied against it, insisting that successful claims for long-ago abuses by priests or rabbis could be financially devastating.

They also argued that the temporary lifting of the statute of limitations would unfairly affect religious and other private institutions. (Because of existing protections in the law, which the original bill did not change, public institutions were immune.)

As a result of that complaint, Ms. Markey amended her bill for the first time earlier this week, adding provisions overriding protections enjoyed by public entities, and making them equally liable.

Timothy Echausse, an activist with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he was disappointed with the new proposal to cut off legal claims by anyone over 53.

A frequent visitor to Albany who lobbied lawmakers many times this year in support of the original bill, he said, “When everyone knew it had no chance of being enacted, they all voted for it to be able to show, ‘Hey, look, I’m tough on predators.’”

But now, he added, “we’re dealing with reality, and politics.”

Many advocates for sex abuse victims said they were taken by surprise. Some said they would oppose passage of the bill as currently proposed.

“It is just such a breach of trust of the people who have worked so hard over the years,” said Rich Cerick, 54, a Manhattan lawyer who said he was sexually abused as a child. “I’d rather it be defeated. There is either justice for all or there is no justice.”

Mark Furnish, counsel to the bill’s Senate sponsor, Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan, who, according to several lobbyists, was not informed of the amendment until the revision was printed on Friday, said the senator was “considering his options.”

Mr. Furnish said he would not comment further.

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