Survivors of childhood sexual abuse who have been excluded from filing civil claims because of a restrictive statute of limitations in New York State will now get one year to file lawsuits against their abusers and institutions that enabled the abuse.
Lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in January after the bill languished for years in Albany largely due to opposition from Republican lawmakers. The new law allows survivors of childhood sex abuse to file criminal charges before they turn 28 years old and file civil suits before they turn 55. It also opens a year-long look back window which opens Wednesday, allowing anyone to file civil lawsuits no matter when their alleged abuse took place.
A group of survivors, advocates and lawmakers who said they’d been abused as children and who pushed for the passage of the new law gathered in Times Square Tuesday morning to unveil a public service announcement which will play on a Jumbotron there, as well as across social media platforms.
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“The message to abusers is loud and clear. There is no place for you to hide in the state of New York any longer,” said Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who identified herself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse during emotional hearings on the subject in Albany earlier this year.
They’re encouraging survivors to reach out to victims advocacy group Safe Horizon, which produced the PSA, for help connecting with legal services or counseling.
“You don’t have to be on a billboard in Times Square,” said Bridie Farrell, former U.S. speed-skater who said she was abused by a teammate as a child, who added people can file lawsuits anonymously if they’re uncomfortable coming out publicly. “You can come forward and make [a] real, significant difference in your communities and in your lives, in a way that's best for you.”
Under the previous statute of limitations, most survivors had to bring civil and criminal charges before they turned 23 years old.
But critics said that time frame was out of step with how survivors process trauma, and that many don’t disclose their abuse for decades. Studies have found that adults who do come forward do so at an average age of 52 years old. Advocates say many New Yorkers who suffered childhood abuse have long been left with no legal recourse when they were finally ready to come forward.
“When somebody is ready to speak up our laws should be ready to listen,” said State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, another lawmaker who’d said she’d been abused as a child. “This has been overdue for many decades. Finally New Yorkers have recourse and the ability to be able to speak up.”
Efforts to reform New York’s laws were stymied for years by pressure from powerful groups who are likely to face a flood of litigation under the look-back window, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and the prominent ultra-Orthodox group Agutha of Israel.
“In the Assembly, There is a powerful legislator who is now deceased and who himself was accused...of abusing interns and female staffers. He was complicit with the Brooklyn Diocese of blocking the measure in the Assembly,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal at the Tuesday press conference, referring to the late Assemblyman Vito Lopez. “We eventually passed it when he was gone and dead.”
Some organizations, including the New York Archdiocese and Rockefeller University Hospital, have proactively sued several of their insurers to make sure they provide coverage for the alleged abuse. In light of the change in New York state law, the Boy Scouts of America have said it is considering filing for bankruptcy, a mechanism that many organizations in other states have used to pay off claimants and restructure any remaining assets.
Bankruptcy filings and multi-million dollar settlements have been a recurring outcome in other states that have implemented a look back window for adult survivors. After California’s one-year look back window closed in 2004, the Los Angeles Diocese alone paid victims nearly $700 million dollars. In Minnesota, a three year look back window that closed in 2016 resulted in several Catholic dioceses filing for bankruptcy.
The New York Office of Court Administration (OCA) has said that it is expecting as many as a thousand cases to be filed against institutions and individuals over the next several days. Several law firms representing plaintiffs say they are already representing hundreds of clients.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the OCA, said they have designated 45 judges to handle cases filed under the Child Victims Act, and plans to expedite those cases to reach the fastest possible conclusion, including possible mediation.
“Justice looks different for each person,” said Ariel Zwang, the head of Safe Horizon, who encouraged people to reach out for help whether or not they plan on taking legal action. “For some, bringing their abuser to civil justice in the courts is their way of healing.”
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.
This story has been updated to reflect that victims have until 28 years of age to bring criminal cases, not 25.