It’s no secret in the world of sex abuse survivors that many people who’ve lived through such horrible events take years or even decades to come forward and talk about what’s happened to them.
Fear of their assailant, shame and guilt, fear of ostracization by their family and fear of not being believed are all among the reasons it often takes so long for victims to come forward. In some cases, when victims are young, they may come forward to their families but their families may not report what happened to law enforcement. The young victims may not learn until they are adults that what happened to them was a criminal act that could be prosecuted.
With the explosive report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania in mid-August that detailed the abuse meted out by 300 Catholic priests against at least 1,000 victims in the state over course of decades, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has renewed the call for New York to change the statute of limitations on prosecuting child abusers here.
The New York State Assembly passed the Child Victims Act this spring, which would extend the statute of limitations to the age of 28 for criminal cases and to 50 for civil cases from the current age of 23. The bill would also create a one-year window in which older victims could file civil suits against their attacker.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has called the proposed one-year window “toxic” after a meeting with Governor Cuomo earlier this year.
The State Senate has long blocked the Child Victims Act, with one senator, Catharine Young of Olean, New York, offering up an alternative bill that would end the statute of limitations and create a hearing process for victims, paying their claims out of a $300 million asset forfeiture fund controlled by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Her rationale, she says, is that sex abusers often do not have money to pay their victims in a civil case.
It’s a rare thing in this world that we would worry whether someone who had committed a criminal act would have enough money to respond to a lawsuit, and this stance is a slap in the face to victims who have suffered a lifetime’s worth of trauma for something that occurred when they likely did not have the capacity to even utter the word “no,” or to even understand what it was that was happening to them when they were abused.
If the state pays a victim of child abuse, it may cause momentary relief from some of the financial burdens of life, but paying off victims does nothing to alleviate some of their biggest concerns: that their abuser be held accountable for their actions and that their abuser is not able to go free into society and commit the same crimes over and over again.
Even if these sex offenders are placed on a registry, abusers are not likely to be a random person who lives down the block from their prey. They are far more likely to be close trusted friends of a family, or even extended or nuclear family members.
The truth is that extending the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution to the age of 28 just isn’t long enough. Allowing older victims to file suit for one year is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough either.
Statutes of limitations are arbitrary numbers, set state by state, which tell a lot about how that state’s lawmakers, past and present, value the damage caused by people who commit crimes.
For an act as heinous as a sex crime committed against a child, New York lawmakers need to put themselves into victims’ shoes. They need to learn more about what a lifetime of trauma and shame can do to someone whose scars may not be visible, but pervade every action they take.
Victims deserve better than both these bills allow. New York must do better.