By Sabina Mollot
Amidst of a flurry of progressive bill passing and signing in the state capitol, the long-denied Child Victims Act, sponsored by State Brad Hoylman, has finally passed both houses. With Governor Andrew Cuomo having already declared his support — even getting some backlash from the Archdiocese for his newly leftist leanings — the signing of the bill seems just a formality at this point.
The legislation’s language was amended this week to make it clear that secular as well as religious institutions could be held accountable for past incidents of abuse.
Last year it was passed in the Assembly, as it was the year before, but went nowhere in what was then a GOP-led State Senate. This year, however, the bill passed unanimously in the Upper House and nearly unanimously in the Assembly. Opposition to the bill, which has been around at least 13 years, largely had to do with the one-year lookback window of opportunity for starting a claim of abuse in instances where the statute of limitations has expired. The bill will also allow survivors of child sex abuse to file a civil suit against their abusers or institutions that enabled abuse until the age of 55. Currently the age limit is 23. The lookback window will apply to survivors older than 55 as well. Additionally, those abused at a public institution will no longer be required to file a notice of claim as a condition to filing a lawsuit.
Following the bill’s passage, Hoylman admitted he was not expecting to get unanimous support from his colleagues, although he did think it would pass based on the fact that a number of freshman senators had made the CVA part of their platforms. He also credited the bill’s success to new Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins as well as the activism of sex abuse survivors.
“Collective action on political issues makes a difference, even in places like Albany,” he quipped.
As for the odds of very old cases having a chance in court, Hoylman acknowledged it would be difficult. But, he added, “Sometimes people keep diaries or contemporaneous accounts. Somebody can write down their experiences at the time. There could be photos, appointments with a physician. A single pedophile could have abused multiple children.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for Marsh Law, a New York law firm that specializes in sex abuse cases, said on Tuesday their phones have already been ringing off the hook from people interested in filing cases.
Robert Lewis, of counsel for Marsh, said he knows it won’t be easy to prove decades-old allegations of abuse. But, he insisted, “We’re prepared for that.” He added, “It would be uncommon for people in their 40s and 50s to make up a story like that. It’s an awful experience for them. Ultimately it will be for a jury to decide if they believe them or not.”
Lewis also said such cases have been successful in states where similar laws have already been enacted like California, Minnesota and Washington. “It’s new in New York, but not new if you look across the states.”
The passage of the bill was also cheered by Vincent J. Palusci, MD, MS, FAAP, chair of the Child Protection Committee at NYU Langone’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital.
While Palusci said he wasn’t sure how very old cases of trauma could be proven in court, he suggested the CVA would still help give legitimacy to survivors’ claims.
“It helps people because they can identify who did what to them in some public, recognizable way,” said Palusci, who is also a professor of pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine. “It gives the adults a chance to voice what happened to them. They don’t have to hide anymore. It’s part of the treatment to talk about it and bring it out of the shadows. I applaud the government of New York for bringing us out of the bottom of the list of states (for similar legislation).”
Palusci added that for victims of sexual abuse, disclosing it is “more of a process than a single event.”
Often this is due to the abuser being known to the victim. “They may not want to get the abuser in trouble. They may be threatened not to talk. It may be years if not decades before they can talk about it.”
Asked who he thought was the bill’s most aggressive opponent, Hoylman put the blame on the former GOP Senate majority.
“The Republican leadership held this up for so many years. It required a Herculean effort to get this bill considered.” He added, “It was a collection of forces that never came out of the closet to oppose the bill, but I’ll say it was religious groups combined with insurance companies and Republicans were doing their bidding.”