The Editorial Board: A deadline has passed, but abuse victims are still coming forward and they need help

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

September 9, 2022

Should the look-back window be reopened and maybe even left open?

This provision of New York State’s 2019 Child Victims Act allowed adults who had been abused decades ago to sue their abusers or the institutions that enabled the abuse. The statute of limitations for such suits was raised to the age of 55; abuse survivors had a two year window (which included an extension in 2020) to file lawsuits. More than 10,000 such claims were filed in New York.

Now that deadline has passed, but hundreds and possibly thousands of other victims have either come forward after the deadline or have not been able to find representation in cases where the alleged abusers would not have the resources to cover settlements and costs.

The Child Victims Act offered victims of alleged abuse a three-year period in which to seek justice, but, too often, three years was not long enough when weighed against decades of firmly repressed memories and tamped-down fear.

It took more than 10 years for advocates to get the CVA signed into law to begin with. It was vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and the insurance industry, although New York’s Catholic Conference eventually supported the law.

That was just one more decade of frustration and heartbreak for people like 52-year-old Robert Kapel. As Kapel says, “All my life, I’ve tried to think, ‘Why do I feel like this?” Now he’s ready “to give myself some peace, to move forward with this and to say, ‘yes, it absolutely happened.’”

As detailed by News reporter Charlie Specht, Kapal is one of those who is now ready to name names and sue Rev. Joseph E. Vatter, who Kapal says abused him when Kapal was a 9-year-old altar boy at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Tonawanda.

Unfortunately, for Kapal and many others, it’s too late. And cases like his are further complicated by the multiple Catholic dioceses in New York, including Buffalo’s, that have declared bankruptcy.

While making stories public has, in itself, been helpful for many victims, lawsuits do more, often eliciting admissions of guilt and forcing abusers out of positions where they can still cause harm.

This is why some states, such as Vermont and Maine, have abolished statutes of limitations both going forward and retroactively. Hawaii has reopened it look-back window multiple times.

Some entities – including large organizations being sued, the insurance lobby and even a few legislators – would rather not look back any more. They’d like to be done with addressing shameful and life-shattering cases of abuse that took place decades before victims were able to come forward.

But there’s no finish line here. In fact, a new law, Adult Survivors Act, which comes into force on November 24, will allow adults who have suffered sexual abuse to institute their civil claims without having to overcome challenging limitation provisions.

The business of addressing abuse cases is still very much in progress. It might be time for New York State to admit this and consider reopening the window.

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