After years of failed attempts, the New York legislature voted Monday to loosen one of the nation’s tightest statutes of limitations on molestation to give victims more time to seek criminal charges or file lawsuits.
The Child Victims Act would also create a one-year litigation window for victims to file lawsuits now barred by the statute of limitations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will sign the measure into law.
The bill has been deemed by private schools as a threat to their existence and was blocked for years by Republicans in the state Senate. That changed last fall when Democrats won a Senate majority and the chamber’s new leader made good on her promise to put the bill to a vote. When the roll was called, the vote in the Senate was unanimous, with every Republican senator voting yes.
“We apologize for not hearing you soon enough,” Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said on the floor. “We apologize for making you wait so long … The wait is over.”
New York state currently has one of the nation’s most restrictive statutes of limitations when it comes to molestation, giving victims until they’re 23 to file lawsuits or seek criminal charges against their abusers. Victims and their advocates say it often takes years or decades to speak out about abuse after it occurs.
Under the act, victims can file civil suits until age 55 and seek criminal charges until age 28. The one-year litigation window for past claims now barred by the statute of limitations has been the sticking point, with large private institutions such as Agudath Israel of America and the Catholic Church warning that it could cause catastrophic financial harm to any organization that cares for children. A similar law in California, passed in 2002, resulted in Catholic dioceses paying $1.2 billion in settlements.
The groups dropped their opposition to the act last week, however, when the act was revised to treat public and private schools the same. In a statement on the bill’s passage, Agudah said that the protection of children was always paramount. It also noted its longtime support for expanding the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal actions.
“However,” the Agudah statement added, “we opposed aspects of the Child Victims Act, out of concern that the unprecedented ability to revive decades-old claims in civil suits could jeopardize the ongoing viability of schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of communities like ours. That concern remains.”
The Assembly passed the act 130-4 — with Simcha Eichenstein of Brooklyn one of the no-votes. The Senate passed it earlier 63-0.
While only three Republicans voted against the measure, several of them voiced concerns that the bill could bankrupt organizations over decades-old claims that would be difficult to refute.
“For a year, you can bring a civil lawsuit against anybody with no restrictions whatsoever as to the timing,” said Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua. “Your claim could be 50, 60, 70 years old. Long past the time that any individual employer would have any records to defend themselves.”