New Yorkers Celebrate Second Chance in Sex-Crimes Justice

MANHATTAN (CN) – Celebrating a law over a decade in the making, New York lawmakers who survived sex abuse as children praised the state Tuesday for giving future generations more opportunities to seek justice.

“When somebody is ready to speak up, our laws should be ready to listen,” Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou said at a press conference in Times Square hosted by the victim-services nonprofit Safe Horizon.

New York Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte (right) celebrates with fellow Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou (center-left) and state Senator Alessandra Biaggi (center-right), at a Tuesday press extending time limits for survivors of child sex abuse to seek justice. All three lawmakers identify as survivors.
(Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

Along with three fellow survivors in the New York Assembly and Senate, Niou was part of a Democratic majority that brought the Child Victims Act to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk in February.

New York previously had one of the most restrictive deadlines in the country for victims of child sex abuse to bring a civil claim against their abusers.

Whereas they previously had to file suit before their 23rd birthday, the law set to take effect on Wednesday now gives survivors until they turn 55. The extended window applies only to those who were not yet 23 when the law was signed, but it also includes a one-year revival window for survivors whose claims have expired.

Aside from civil relief, adults who were abused as children will have until they’re 25 years old to bring charges for a misdemeanor offense and 28 to bring charges for a felony offense.

The think tank Child USA says studies show survivors are on average around 52 years old when they report. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.

Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director at Child USA, predicted that the revival window will have big public benefits.

“We’re going to learn about hidden child predators in New York state that nobody knew about,” said Hamilton, who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The law has been a long time coming. Stymied by lobbying from the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and other groups with long histories of shuffling around predators in their ranks, the Child Victims Act languished in New York’s state Legislature for over a decade until Democrats won a majority in the last election.

In an email, the Boy Scouts of America said it unequivocally backs the elimination of a statute of limitations on child-abuse claims but still seems to oppose the one-year window in New York.

“We do … have concerns with proposals that would impose retroactive liability on organizations that did not have actual knowledge of the specific misconduct underlying an allegation of abuse,” the group said in an email.

Across the country, there are five states with similar revival windows to survivors already opened or with revived expired cases in 2019. Connecticut and New Jersey have revival laws coming up this year.

Though similar in concept, these revival windows vary in specificity. Michigan’s 2018 window, for example, was only open to alleged victims of serial child molester and former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. Massachusetts’ 2014 window allowed lawsuits only against individual perpetrators, not larger entities like the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts. Delaware passed a pair of two-year windows, using the second to allow claims against health care providers that were excluded from the first filing period.

New York’s law was first introduced in 2006 by then-Assemblywoman Margaret Markey was reintroduced this year by state Senators Brad Hoylman and Linda Rosenthal. Before the law went to the Assembly in January — passing 130-3 — its passage by the Democrat-controlled Senate was unanimous.

Michael Polenberg, vice-president of government affairs at Safe Horizon, emphasized in a phone interview: “This never should have been a partisan issue, but it became one.”

New York’s first window, intended for victims and survivors whose statutes of limitations had expired, ends Aug. 14, 2020.

Type “Child Victims Act” into Google and ads flood the page for law firms promising justice to survivors. Jeff Herman, a lawyer who’s been representing such survivors for over two decades, said he’s never run a television ad before but that changed this year in preparation for New York’s revival window. Attorneys in his firm are holding press conferences across the state this week.

Assemblyman David Weprin said his office has advertised the new law in its newsletters and in a public forum. A company called Clear Channel donated Times Square billboard space to Safe Horizon for its public service announcements, which feature Niou and three fellow survivors: Brian Toale, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte and state Senator Alessandra Biaggi.  

Child USA’s Hamilton noted that all the attention is largely beneficial but still carries challenges.

“My concern about all of the aggressive advertising is that in the states where we’re still trying to get window legislation enacted, that’s being read as the lawyers are in it for the money, it’s just about the lawyers — and it’s not,” she said. “The lawyers are necessary for the victims to get justice.”

There are simply not enough attorneys who specialize in child sex abuse to handle the number of lawsuits expected in New York over the next 12 months, Hamilton said. So some counsellors filing within the revival window will necessarily be new to the beat. 

“I welcome the fresh minds and the new lawyers that get involved,” Hamilton continued. “They just need to understand that they need to be talking with the lawyers who have been doing this for a long time.” 

She also stressed the importance of therapy for victims, especially those considering legal action, both before they file and while the suit proceeds. 

While recognizing that many law firms do specialize in child sex abuse cases, Polenberg at Safe Horizon expressed concern about “lawyers who sue for a living,” but don’t usually work with abuse survivors, seeing a new opportunity that wasn’t previously available in New York. 

“There are firms who are looking at this and saying, ‘Hey, here’s a new way to make money … but they all have very splashy ads, and it can be difficult for survivors to understand, ‘Who should I choose?’”

Jeff Herman and another old-guard survivors’ attorney, Jeff Anderson, both said the money isn’t the goal. Though they have racked up massive settlements in their careers, both purport to charge fees only on a contingency basis. In 2018, for example, Anderson scored a $218 million bankruptcy settlement with the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. In 2011, Herman won $100 million in damages for a client who had been abused by a priest in Miami. 

“The money is symbolic,” Herman said. “In our system of justice, all we can do is sue for money damages. I can’t take away what happened. But I can give them [survivors] a voice.”

Many survivors choose not to sue an individual but rather a larger body or organization that failed to protect them, and often it’s an insurance company that winds up with the bill. So insurers push back hard against legislation like the Child Victims Act. The Catholic Church and The Rockefeller University in New York have already sued their own insurance companies to make sure those companies pay up on the window lawsuits.

Kevin Trapani, founder and CEO of The Redwoods Group, a North Carolina-based insurance agency that covers youth-serving organizations like the YMCA, says similar insurance battles have played out in the past, for example with asbestos-injury lawsuits.

The revival window by definition will bring up old issues that companies thought they were done covering.

The insurance industry doesn’t like losses, but it’s built for them, Trapani said. “What the industry hates is uncertainty.” 

Societal standards have also taken on a zero-tolerance stance that’s well overdue, Trapani says. But that has driven up insurance rates and lowered liability limits, or the amount of money an organization wants to be able to pay out in potential damages. 

The New York State Office of Court Administration says it’s ready for the blitz of cases.

Between them, Herman and Anderson and their staffs alone are planning to bring hundreds of lawsuits across the state. Anderson said he has a team of about 100 people working on more than 400 lawsuits statewide, which will mostly be filed under pseudonyms. Herman plans to file more than 200. And that’s just two law firms. 

OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen said 45 judges statewide have been designated to hear Child Victims Act cases, and they have all been trained on the new legislation.

Whether the cases go before a judge right away, however, is uncertain. In an unrelated shift, by the end of the calendar year, all civil cases filed in the state of New York will immediately be shunted to an alternative dispute resolution program, which includes remedies like mediation. If there’s no chance for a settlement there, Chalfen explained, the case would then be placed on the judicial track. 

Attorneys and activists said mediation can be a productive and healing process for abuse survivors.

“Mediation is good, and that’s where good things can happen and resolution is made,” said Anderson.  

Hamilton noted that some institutions may file for bankruptcy to avoid massive payouts. Such relief is not likely possible, however, for the Catholic Church in New York City, given its tremendous land assets here.

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said the Church is in a wait-and-see period. “To be honest, we really don’t know what to expect at this point,” he said in an interview.  

“We hope anybody who has suffered abuse would go immediately to law enforcement, report the crime, and seek justice in whatever way they can.”

Advocates and attorneys like Jeff Anderson hope the window and the rest of the new legislation will help swing the balance of power toward survivors. 

“We’re in a mode like we’ve never been before in this country, where survivors who have been shut up for so long have now been given some hope,” said Anderson. 

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If you or someone you know is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in New York state, some helpful resources can be found at safehorizon.org/cva. 

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