New York State Catholic Conference
Published on April 19th, 2015
Memorandum of Opposition
The above-referenced bill would create a one-year window for the filing of decades-old claims of sexual abuse by a minor against businesses, not-for-profits and religious organizations. Sexual abuse is a crime and a detestable assault on the dignity of the human person, made even worse when the victim is a child. Child sexual abuse is a pervasive social problem and the Catholic Conference supports legislative efforts to strengthen criminal penalties for sexual abuse of children to allow law enforcement to get sexual predators off the streets, and to prospectively extend criminal and civil statutes of limitations to give victims more time to seek justice.
The centerpiece of this legislation, however, is not designed to protect children from abuse today, rather it is aimed at enriching trial lawyers by opening a “window” for previously time-barred claims, specifically targeting private institutions such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and other not-for profit organizations with impossible-to-defend claims that go back 40, 50, or 60 years, or even longer. Incredibly, the bill “window” in the statute of limitations does not apply to public institutions, such as public schools, hospitals, health clinics, juvenile detention facilities, county youth programs and town pools. The reason is simple: State law which requires victims to file a notice of claim with the courts within three months of the incident when they intend to sue a public entity, or forever be time barred. As this bill does not amend that requirement, the window does not apply to victims injured in state facilities.
The Assembly sponsor acknowledged this injustice in 2009 when she amended her bill to remove notice of claims requirements, thereby including public institutions. She even told the New York Times that the amendment “has made this a better bill.” (NYT, 6/4/09) However, after strong opposition from the NYS Conference of Mayors, the Association of Counties, and the School Boards Association, she retreated and refashioned the bill to once again protect public entities.
Under the current bill language, victims of long-ago abuse in public schools or other municipal institutions would not have the same recourse to sue an employer or institution as someone abused by a priest, rabbi or a Boy Scout counselor. This creates two classes of victims, giving a person who claims to have been sexually abused in a private school another chance to sue 60 years later, while denying the right of a person abused in a public school even months after the fact. This is clearly discriminatory.
Statutes of limitations exist to protect the fair administration of justice. Their purpose is to ensure that plaintiffs bring their claims within a reasonable period of time so that defendants will have timely notice of such claims and a reasonable opportunity to prepare a defense. They reflect recognition of the need to give legal repose to human affairs. Over time, memories fade, witnesses die, evidence disappears and the likelihood of fraudulent claims increases. It is virtually impossible for any organization to defend itself against a claim arising from events 50, 60, 70 years ago – a claim which probably involves people who are dead and about which little, if any, reliable information is available.
This legislation is patterned on similar legislation that was passed in California in 2002 during the height of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. It has resulted in more than 800 lawsuits – more than $1 billion in claims. The Catholic Church in California was been forced to settle these claims by selling church properties and curtailing essential programs and services. The Catholic Church in New York State would likely suffer the same catastrophic financial harm. Moreover, the legislation may make it impossible for the Catholic Church and other non-profits that serve children to buy insurance, putting in jeopardy their ability to continue to provide services.
Since 2002, the Catholic Church has taken more steps to prevent the sexual abuse of children than any other private organization. No one who has been credibly accused of harming a child is currently in active ministry and all Church employees and volunteers in every diocese must complete sexual abuse awareness training if they are going to be in contact with children in any way. Whenever a credible claim of sexual abuse is brought, it is both investigated by Church authorities and immediately reported to law enforcement. The Church recognizes that sexual abuse and sexual assault is a societal problem, and it must be addressed as such.
The Catholic Conference strongly supports legislative efforts to protect children from sexual abuse, including mandatory background checks for all public and private employees who work with children, expansion of the “mandatory reporter” law to include clergy and others, and an extension of the criminal statute of limitations for additional sex offenses. An extension or elimination of the criminal statutes would, in effect, extend the civil statutes as well, because state law allows a civil case to be brought upon the disposition of a criminal case, even if it would otherwise be time barred.
The Catholic Conference opposes legislation designed to target the Catholic Church and other private organizations by opening a retroactive window in the statute of limitations so that people can bring claims against institutions which decades ago may have employed someone now charged with abuse. This bill would result in present-day juries applying society’s current psychological understanding of sexual abuse to the decisions made by employers 40, 50 or 60 years ago. It is wrong to hold innocent people accountable today for the evil actions of long-dead individuals from a different generation.
This bill would be a boon to trial attorneys but a grave injustice to those who donate their hard-earned money to religious and charitable institutions which now might be subject to stale lawsuits regarding long-ago charges. No secret vault of gold exists to bail Catholics out of this attorney-driven legal siege. The people paying for these abuse settlements are innocent Catholic families who had no part in events of the past. It is these Catholic families who stand to lose their churches, their schools, and the charities they so generously support if this law is passed. It is the people of the state who stand to suffer from curtailed religious, educational and social services.
Victims of sexual abuse clearly have a right to sue, but it must be done within a reasonable amount of time or a fair trial becomes impossible, particularly with lesser evidentiary standards of civil versus criminal trials. A retroactive opening of civil statutes of limitations allowing for unlimited old claims does not serve justice. In fact, it is contrary to justice. It is unfair and bad public policy when governments exempt themselves from lawsuits of a kind that can bankrupt their private counterparts when engaged in exactly the same behavior.
This bill is discriminatory on its face. The Catholic Conference strongly urges its defeat.
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