With narrow window to sue, New York abuse survivors must act now
The passage of New York’s Child Victims Act, the result of a long-fought war for childhood sexual abuse survivors and an important precedent for other states to follow, provides a narrow window of opportunity for survivors to come forward. In 2003, I was one of the attorneys who led civil litigation for a precedent-setting case after California opened a one-year window lifting the statute of limitation for claims against private institutions. During that litigation, hundreds of clergy abuse victims came forward, including 25 who united to end decades of child-endangering secrecy by the Roman Catholic religious order known as the Franciscan Friars. The litigation forced the publication of secret files documenting abuse by Franciscan priests and brothers.
Despite the Catholic Church fighting all the way to the California Supreme Court to prevent the release of those files, we persisted and prevailed. This groundbreaking battle through the trial and appellate courts became the basis for similar institutional releases of perpetrator files around the country. In California alone, this civil litigation and discovery process led to the public identification of hundreds of perpetrators, as well as church hierarchy members who concealed the perpetrators’ crimes from law enforcement and the public.
A one-year window is short. I often wonder how many children were saved from sex crimes as a result of California’s one-year window. Then I’m reminded of the victims who came forward too late, after the window closed, and were denied their chances to obtain justice.
California is one of the only states to have opened a one-year window. This precedent offers valuable lessons that can inform New York’s survivor, legal and social service communities, including the benefits of victims coming forward quickly. Many survivors have fought through embarrassment and shame fueled by the mistaken belief that the abuse they suffered was somehow “their fault,” and that they were their perpetrator’s only victim. When they spoke out, they empowered others to do the same. Often, they proved their perpetrator was a serial abuser. Survivors who speak their truth not only obtain justice for themselves, but protect others from falling victim to perpetrators in institutional cultures of hidden sexual abuse.
It is also important to look beyond the Catholic Church. Much of the discussion around New York’s Child Victims Act has been focused on the Catholic Church, and rightfully so. But the reality is that institutional coverups of child sex abuse are not unique to the Catholic Church. In 2012, a California trial court ordered the Boy Scouts of America to turn over their secret “perversion files,” documen...