Times Union - Albany, NY May 25, 2011
N.Y.'s obligation to sex abuse victims
By Thomas K. Duane | Opinion
The beatification of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City has caused much fanfare around the globe, yet for many people it stirred painful memories of the clergy sex abuse scandal that occurred under his leadership.
Child sex abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church or to any other organized religion. A child or teenager can be molested by any adult in a position of authority or trust.
It is also true that those molested at an early age do not come to terms with what has happened to them until much later in life. I have spoken to many survivors and the pattern of delayed reaction, and pain, is always the same. In the case of institutional sexual abuse, the pain is magnified when it becomes clear that officials knew about the proclivity of abusers and did nothing.
Survivors deserve justice. Because transparency so rarely occurs voluntarily, the criminal and civil justice systems are the only way to seek relief. Tragically, New York is one of the worst places in the United States for sexual abuse survivors seeking justice.
New York relies on an antiquated statute of limitations. As a result, many abusers escape conviction unless they went across state lines to abuse a child in a state with a rational state of limitations. The conviction of New York priest Gary Mercure in Massachusetts is a recent example.
It is too late to prosecute abusers who ran out the statute of limitations clock in New York. The only hope for justice lies in New York's civil courts.
Regrettably, an abused child only has to the age of 21 to bring a lawsuit. Yet most survivors don't come to terms with their abuse until decades later, according to Marci Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
In 2002, California, facing a similar problem, enacted a one-year window allowing time-barred survivors the ability to file a lawsuit.
These lawsuits are not solely about money. A lawsuit allows a survivor to review documents that show what institutions knew about an abuser and when they knew it -- a discovery process that is validating and powerful.
The window works. In jurisdictions that have created a retroactive window, the Catholic Church has quickly entered into a closed settlement agreement with survivors to prevent records from being disclosed. In New York, no settlements are offered because institutions are protected from document disclosure and the sunlight of the courts.
The church also uses bankruptcy as a tool. Bankruptcy is not caused by damages paid to victims. This is a common misconception. Bankruptcy is declared to delay or avoid disclosure and prevent fair payment of economic damages.
Since 2003, I have introduced legislation in the state Senate that would create a one-year window for time-barred survivors of sexual abuse. It ensures that both private and public entities are subject to the same liability. Church and state, religious and secular, public and private are all treated equally under my legislation.
The legislation is aggressively lobbied against by many of the powerful institutions it would affect [see links below] and has never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Lobbyists hired to fight this legislation are like a who's who of the most connected in Albany. Survivors feel betrayed by officials who care more about appeasing powerful and well-funded interests than creating a path to justice.
It is time the Senate and Assembly pass this legislation to provide relief to survivors and make our communities safer.
State Sen. Thomas K. Duane, D-WFP, represents the 29th District in Manhattan.
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