Mis­con­duct cases spur new cam­paign to change state’s child sex abuse law

The Buffalo News - - WEATHER - By El­iz­a­beth A. Har­ris NEW YORK TIMES

Can the na­tional out­pour­ing of sex­ual abuse claims help move re­cal­ci­trant moun­tains in Al­bany?

For 11 years, ac­tivists and law­mak­ers in New York have tried and failed to pass the Child Vic­tims Act, which would ex­pand the le­gal re­course avail­able to peo­ple who say they were sex­u­ally abused as chil­dren, who now face some of the most re­stric­tive laws in the coun­try. As the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion bursts with a reck­on­ing over sex­ual mis­con­duct, ac­tivists hope that this year they will suc­ceed and are ad­vanc­ing a new, more ag­gres­sive strat­egy to pass the bill.

“Now is the time,” said Bri­die Far­rell, a com­pet­i­tive speed skater who was abused by an older team­mate and has been push­ing the bill in Al­bany for years. “The peo­ple who are speak­ing up are fa­mous peo­ple, with for­tunes and le­gal teams and PR teams,” she said. And yet for years, she con­tin­ued, “they were too scared to talk. So how do you ex­pect a child to do it?”

Un­der New York state law, vic­tims of child­hood sex­ual abuse have un­til they are 21 to sue the in­sti­tu­tion where the abuse took place, like a church or a school, and un­til 23 to sue their at­tacker. Crim­i­nal charges, with the ex­cep­tion of rape, must be filed be­fore a sur­vivor turns 23. Ac­tivists say New York, along with a hand­ful of other states like Alabama and Michi­gan, has some of the least vic­tim-friendly laws in the coun­try.

The Child Vic­tims Act would al­low sur­vivors to sue un­til they turn 50 and let crim­i­nal charges be filed un­til they are 28. It would also cre­ate a one-year win­dow dur­ing which cases from any time could pro­ceed in court.

Some two dozen ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions and sur­vivor groups are co­or­di­nat­ing their ef­forts this year with the twin goals of con­vinc­ing Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo to put the Child Vic­tims Act in the bud­get and cre­at­ing the po­lit­i­cal space for it to suc­ceed. A mem­ber of the coali­tion, Child USA, a non­profit group led by Marci Hamil­ton, a le­gal ex­pert in child sex abuse cases, has hired the strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm SKDKnicker­bocker to co­or­di­nate the cam­paign. SKD has en­joyed a close re­la­tion­ship with Cuomo’s of­fice, and over­saw the suc­cess­ful ef­fort in 2011 to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage in the state.

Child USA says the law be­longs in the gover­nor’s bud­get be­cause cur­rent laws cost the state money. Some sur­vivors of child­hood sex­ual as­sault, who may suf­fer from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der or other dif­fi­cul­ties like ad­dic­tion, of­ten end up de­pend­ing on state pro­grams like Med­i­caid. Child USA ar­gues that the Child Vic­tims Act would shift that fi­nan­cial bur­den to the abusers and re­spon­si­ble in­sti­tu­tions.

Last year, the bill passed in the Assem­bly by a vote of 139-7, and Cuomo of­fered his en­dorse­ment by in­tro­duc­ing it as well. But the Se­nate speaker, John J. Flana­gan, a Repub­li­can, has de­clined to bring it up for a vote in that cham­ber. A key piece of the pro­po­nents’ strat­egy will be to ag­gres­sively tar­get spe­cific state se­na­tors, es­pe­cially in com­pet­i­tive subur­ban dis­tricts, with ef­forts like dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing to get their sup­port. Carl L. Mar­cellino and Elaine Phillips, Repub­li­cans from Long Is­land who won nar­row vic­to­ries in re­cent elec­tions, are two se­na­tors on their list, ac­cord­ing to coali­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“I think we re­al­ize now that they re­ally need to be called out,” said Stephen Jimenez, an abuse sur­vivor who has been ad­vo­cat­ing for the bill for more than 10 years. “The ques­tion for us now is re­ally blunt: Why are you pro­tect­ing preda­tors?”

Flana­gan did not re­turn re­peated calls seek­ing com­ment.

Those push­ing the leg­is­la­tion have met with Cuomo and his staff over the past year and a half, and they say that com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­tin­ues.

“It is out­ra­geous that as a re­sult of ar­cane laws, these vic­tims have been de­nied their day in court,” Rich Az­zopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo said in an email. “We are work­ing with the ad­vo­cates to de­ter­mine the most ef­fec­tive way to achieve these much needed re­forms.”

The mea­sure, which has been spear­headed by the vic­tim or­ga­ni­za­tion Safe Hori­zon for over a decade, has faced con­sis­tent op­po­si­tion from the Catholic church and other groups that serve young peo­ple. Den­nis Poust, the di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the New York State Catholic Con­fer­ence, said that while the state’s bish­ops sup­port for­ward-look­ing leg­is­la­tion to raise the statute of lim­i­ta­tions, they op­posed the win­dow that might open the church up to decades worth of claims.

Ac­tivists say such a win­dow is an im­por­tant way to flush out preda­tors who may have evaded de­tec­tion, who may even still have ac­cess to chil­dren, and Linda B. Rosen­thal, D-Man­hat­tan, the bill’s spon­sor in the Assem­bly, called it a “moral re­spon­si­bil­ity” to al­low vic­tims the chance to seek jus­tice.

But Poust said that dio­ce­ses in Min­nesota and Delaware had filed for bank­ruptcy af­ter a flood of sex­ual abuse claims.

“We have to en­sure that the church can con­tinue to pro­vide es­sen­tial ser­vices, be it char­i­ta­ble, ed­u­ca­tional or sacra­men­tal,” Poust said.

As both sides gear up for the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, the drum beat of as­sault al­le­ga­tions seems to quicken ev­ery day. Time Mag­a­zine named “The Si­lence Break­ers,” who have called out abuse, its per­son of the year.

“I’m hope­ful that be­cause of rev­e­la­tion about wide­spread sex­ual abuse, the dam of re­sis­tance has been bro­ken – there are no more sa­cred cows,” Rosen­thal said. “If this isn’t the mo­ment,” she con­tin­ued, “then we’re doomed.”

New York Times

New York State Assem­bly­woman Linda Rosen­thal at her of­fice in Man­hat­tan. Rosen­thal is part of an ef­fort to raise the lim­its on when vic­tims of child sex abuse can sue.

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