Temper shock over sex abuse claims with skepticism

By Daniel Leddy
Staten Island Advance
August 20, 2019

New York’s Child Victims Act is well-intended. The sexual abuse of a child is an act of such depravity that it can inflict catastrophic, lifelong damage on an especially vulnerable class of victims. So it’s certainly reasonable that those who commit such atrocities be subject to criminal prosecution and answerable in civil proceedings for compensatory damages.

But – and it’s a huge but – precisely because the sexual abuse of a child is such a heinous act, and an allegation of its commission so damaging to the reputations of those accused, fundamental fairness requires that they be accorded a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves. And therein lies the problem with the Child Victims Act. For far from protecting the due process rights of defendants, the legislation’s dramatically lengthened statute of limitations significantly undermines them.

Its most problematic provision is the creation of a one-year window, which opened last Wednesday, during which any previously time-barred cause of action for child sex abuse can be asserted regardless of how long ago it’s alleged to have occurred. This invites not only questionable claims but cleverly contrived ones, particularly where the individuals cited as abusers are either dead or so incapacitated that they cannot interpose a defense. This, in turn, is extremely prejudicial to the institutions for which they worked or were otherwise affiliated, the real targets of suits under the Child Victims Act. Since these entities are rendered similarly defenseless, the statute effectively gives plaintiffs and their attorneys a license to plunder their treasuries.

Cakewalk to victory

Contrary to a common misconception, a plaintiff need not produce corroborating evidence of claimed abuse. Rather, he can prevail on his word alone, a highly likely outcome in the absence of anyone to challenge the plaintiff’s testimony. It’s this precise cakewalk to victory that has so many lawyers aggressively soliciting cases under the statute.

A google search of “New York Child Victims Act” immediately following its enactment, yielded several lawyer advertisements seeking potential plaintiffs. This same thirst for cases had lawyers filing lawsuits mere minutes after midnight last Wednesday, and then holding press conferences, mugging for the cameras, and trumpeting their sensationalized but unproven complaints to the media.

Statutes of limitations operate on the common-sense principle that legal claims should be asserted expeditiously so that defendants can defend themselves when evidence is still generally retrievable and memories are reasonably fresh. Since those sexually abused as children often find it difficult to reveal the abuse, it’s not unreasonable to make some accommodation for them. However, allowing anybody claiming such abuse to initiate a civil suit up to age 55, as the Child Victims Act now does, is not reasonable. And providing plaintiffs a one-year window to bring such suits with no time limitation at all is both recklessly irresponsible and historically unprecedented.

Its handiwork was evident in the headlines generated last week. Lawsuits filed under the statute sent “shockwaves” across Staten Island, an Advance story reported, as “the alleged abusers included the names of prominent borough clergy, coaches, educators and school principals”. All of the abuse is claimed to have taken place in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mount Loretto

The following day, the Advance reported “a bombshell lawsuit” against the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin at Mount Loretto, alleging “appalling abuse, over decades, at the hands of nuns, priests and lay employees at the former orphanage”. The abuse is alleged to have occurred as far back as the 1950s and up to the early 1990s.

While last week’s claims undoubtedly did send shockwaves across the Island, that doesn’t make a single one of them actually true. It is absolutely true, however, that the reputations of several people have been ravaged, in some cases with little to no chance of redemption given the extraordinary passage of time.

This is also the case with the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin. Founded in 1883 by Father John Christopher Drumgoole to help orphaned and abandoned children living on the streets of the city, It housed as many as 1,000 children during peak years. In an uplifting 2017 Advance story about Mount Loretto’s annual reunion day, several alumni noted that the care and concern they received from the staff helped heal the heartaches of their former existences. With countless thousands of youth raised there, that sentiment, offered gratuitously out of sincere appreciation, ought to be kept firmly in mind when considering the decades-old, unproven allegations hurled at Mount Loretto last week.

While no opinion is offered here on the merits of any particular lawsuit filed under the Child Victims Act, common sense suggests that each and every one of them be viewed more with skepticism than shock.


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