Why is the Child Victims Act 'look-back' window so short?

By Lou Michel And Qina Liu
Buffalo News
August 19, 2019

Buffalo News readers have asked a number of questions since Wednesday, when the Child Victims Act opened a one-year window for filing civil lawsuits over old allegations of childhood sexual abuse.

The questions ranged from why the look-back is only a year long to why steps are not being taken against the Vatican.

To answer the questions, The News gathered information from attorneys representing people who say they were abused, attorneys representing priests accused of molesting children, the Buffalo Catholic Diocese and past stories in The News.

Digital Engagement Editor Qina Liu helped compile questions from readers.

From Tim Finnegan: Is the Catholic diocese performing better screening of new priests and all the old priests to make sure there are not any more child abusers in the Catholic diocese?

Answer: Don Blowey, safe environment coordinator for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, said the diocese conducts criminal background checks every six years on all adults, including active priests and deacons, who work with "youth or vulnerable persons" on behalf of the diocese. These checks involve national data sources and checks of where the person lived in the last seven years. Follow-up checks are conducted on a quarterly basis.

Each month, the diocese sends a list of all new employees or volunteers who work with young people and vulnerable adults to New York State's Sex Offender Registry, according to Blowey. That enables the diocese to determine if the individuals have been designated in any of the three offender classification levels.

As for individuals preparing to become priests, Bishop Richard J. Malone has said that the diocese has in place "screening and solid formation" for its seminarians.


From @jurel_h on Twitter: I think it's great these individuals will be able to find comfort in speaking up and holding people accountable for the abuse. My question is, after all this time, how can they prove it? What if the predator is deceased, what happens then?

From @TheLizMac on Twitter: How can a 70-year-old crime be proven? 

This question comes in response to The News reporting on a lawsuit accusing the Rev. Francis T. Hogan of abusing the plaintiff in 1948 to 1949 at St. John's Church in Jamestown. Hogan died in 2010.

Answers: Attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr., one of the region's top criminal defense lawyers, said old cases present a challenge in both criminal and civil cases. Recollections of what happened may be inaccurate, witnesses may no longer be available and evidence may not exist after so many years, Cambria said. In addressing the lawsuit involving allegations dating to the 1940s, Cambria said, " is impossible in a case that old to have a fair proceeding. On the other hand, someone may have a letter or picture or some other kind of evidence that is preserved that allows you to prove your case." Cambria's firm, Lipsitz, Green, Scime Cambria, is in the process of preparing to file dozens child sexual abuse cases, mostly involving the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

Attorney Michael S. Taheri, who has represented priests accused of abuse, said Child Victims Act cases involving accused individuals who are deceased present more challenges.

"It is more difficult for the diocese to defend with a contrary position or a denial from the priest of an inappropriate conduct. This would make the priest's personnel file and access to it much more important to the plaintiff who is seeking to prove that the diocese had notice about this priest's conduct," Taheri said. "I imagine the diocese is going to fight more strongly to prevent the plaintiff from having access to the priest's personnel file and any internal documents."


From @ketrack on Instagram: Why is there a one-year window? Why so brief?

Answer: State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, a cosponsor of the Child Victims Act, said this: "I can tell you that the look-back period was one of the components that received the most pushback from those who opposed this bill, but also one of the most important elements for survivors. We fought hard to include this window because we were determined to deliver an opportunity for past survivors to bring their cases of abuse forward, and seek the justice they deserved."


From @sallysak0451 on Instagram: Will the priests be prosecuted? 

Answer: The ability to file criminal charges over child sexual abuse has been extended under the Child Victims Act. Childhood sexual abuse survivors who were under the age of 23 on February 14, 2019, can bring criminal misdemeanor charges until they are 25 and felony charges until they are 28. Meanwhile, the FBI and State Attorney General's Office have been investigating allegations of clergy abuse involving the Buffalo Diocese, but it remains to be seen if prosecutions will result.

From Timothy Clark: Are the people of Buffalo going to allow the Catholic Church to avoid justice by declaring bankruptcy? Also, why do Buffalo Catholics keep giving money to an organization that allowed decades of child rape? 

Answers: Legally the Catholic Diocese has the right to file for bankruptcy. Cambria pointed out that a number of institutions in other states took the bankruptcy route in response to civil cases of sexual abuse of children. The federal bankruptcy court, he explained, then monitors the assets and distribution of the assets to people who have successfully proved their cases.

On contributions, Catholics are not supporting the church as much as they have in the past. The 2019 Catholic Charities appeal finished more than $1.5 million short of an $11 million goal, according to tallies released last month.  A Buffalo News story published on June 1 reported that parish collections were down last fall by an average of 7.5 percent at a variety of parishes surveyed by the diocese.


From @markchorazak on Instagram: When will (Bishop Richard J.) Malone step down? 

From Adam Orsini: So when is Malone going to resign?

Answer: Malone, 73, has said he has no plans to resign. But at 75 years of age, all bishops are required to submit their resignation to the Vatican. After that, it can take an unspecified period of time before a successor is appointed.


From Bob Kerwin: Catholic churches around the globe have been giving a "cut" to the Vatican for centuries. Why isn't any government agency attempting to get the Vatican to pay victims? Read the Pennsylvania Attorney General Report. In my opinion, the Vatican is culpable.

When a spokesperson for Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, was asked if legal measures could be taken to hold the Vatican accountable, the congresssman's office noted a federal judge recently allowed a lawsuit against the Vatican to proceed in the United States. In that case, five men who say they were sexually abused by priests filed suit in Minnesota to try to force the Vatican to make public the identities and records of more than 3,400 clergy accused of sexual abuse.

"While it is typically difficult to make a claim against the Vatican because, as a foreign government, the Holy See has certain immunity, a federal judge recently ruled to allow a case involving U.S. citizens against the Vatican to proceed," Higgins' office noted.  "In addition, federal and state investigations into the church’s handling of sexual abuse are ongoing."


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