Legislature Should Pass Child Victims Act
October 25, 2018
More and more survivors of sexual abuse are sharing their horror stories, often decades after they were molested or raped, or both. In the past, their stories were often covered up. Today, however, their pain and suffering are increasingly being recognized, including by the institutions responsible for the abuse.
The Democratic-led State Assembly has drafted and passed legislation, known as the Child Victims Act, which would make it easier for abuse victims to file lawsuits and seek criminal charges against perpetrators. The Republican-led State Senate, though, is yet to pass a companion bill. It should.
Current law gives abuse victims the option to file civil cases or seek criminal charges until age 23. Under the act, victims could file civil suits up to age 50 and seek criminal charges until they are 28. The bill would also allow a one-year window for older victims to file suits for alleged abuse now blocked by the state’s statute of limitations.
The issue has been thrown into the spotlight in recent months, with new cases of sexual abuse by members of the clergy surfacing with increased regularity. The Boston Globe’s series of stories in 2002 detailing the allegations against hundreds of predator priests no longer stands alone as a chronicle of widespread abuse.
The Pennsylvania attorney general released a grand jury report in August that identified more than 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused of molesting a thousand children, and detailed a subsequent alleged cover-up by other clergy members.
Locally, nearly 300 people filed claims as part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation program, which was launched a year ago. It was modeled after programs instituted in the Archdiocese of New York and Brooklyn in 2016. The programs have given victims in the dioceses a chance at validation and financial compensation from the church that they were unable to receive through the judicial system.
Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian said in August that he represented 25 victims — four women and 21 men — in the Rockville Centre diocese’s program, ranging in age from 37 to 73. At the time they were abused, they were ages 8 to 28. The period of his clients’ abuse stretches from 1953 to 1997, and their claims name 15 priests. Many received settlements from the diocese, from $50,000 to $500,000.
Among the victims was Sean O’Brien, formerly of Rockville Centre, who said he was sodomized dozens of times for two years by the Rev. John J. McGeever in the rectory basement of St. Agnes Cathedral starting in 1981, when he was 10. He didn’t tell his family about the abuse until nearly three decades later. He struggles with his psychic demons to this day.
O’Brien shared his story to encourage others to do the same, and he launched a foundation that he hopes will be able to provide financial assistance to survivors immediately, so they will no longer be forced to wait for a response from the Catholic Church.
State Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced on Sept. 6 the establishment of a clergy abuse hotline and online complaint form so victims, and anyone with information, can share their stories. The Attorney General’s Criminal Division is also seeking to partner with district attorneys, who have the power to convene grand juries to investigate abuse and prosecute when necessary. Underwood has also repeatedly called on the Legislature to pass the Child Victims Act.
Though compensation programs like the one in Rockville Centre provide financial assistance and a sense of confirmation from the church that the abuse, in fact, took place, Garabedian has called them “a public relations move” by the church to curry favor with the public so a change in New York’s statute of limitations does not pass.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressed the state Business Council last month, the Child Victims Act was listed among 11 of his priorities for 2019 if he is re-elected on Nov. 6. The Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and many insurance companies have opposed the act.
Democrats have vowed to pass the measure if they gain the one seat they need to win control of the Senate in November. But this should not be a partisan issue. Both Democrats and Republicans should give victims the right to hold their abusers accountable for their actions, no matter when they come forward to reveal their stories.