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For one year, no statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims

The so-called “look-back window” is part of the Child Victims Act.

August 13, 2019 Michael Stahl
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They say they were sexually abused by foster parents, clergymen, school teachers and Scout leaders. Soon, they’ll finally have their day in court.

Beginning Aug. 14, individuals that had been time-barred from filing sexual abuse lawsuits against alleged perpetrators, dating back to childhood, will have a new opportunity to do so for up to a year.

This so-called “look-back window” is part of the Child Victims Act, which extended the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil lawsuits when it was signed into New York State law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February. The bill had floundered in the State Senate for over a decade, blocked by Republican representatives. But after Democrats took majority control in January, it quickly arrived on the Assembly floor and passed by a resounding 130-3 vote.

“This bill will provide necessary relief to child victims of sexual abuse by amending New York’s antiquated laws to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions, regardless of when the crime occurred,” Cuomo’s office wrote on the governor’s website when the law went into effect.

The Child Victims Act now allows prosecutors to bring criminal charges against an alleged sexual abuse offender until an accuser turns 28, and alleged victims can also now file a civil lawsuit any time before they reach 55 years of age. Previously, child sexual abuse offenses could only be prosecuted within five years of their occurrence, and civil lawsuits could only be filed prior to an alleged victim’s 21st birthday.

But Aug. 14’s landmark date means that anyone of any age has one year to file a retroactive sexual abuse lawsuit against an alleged offender.

“It really is historic legislation, both in New York in the country,” said Jason Amala, an attorney at a Seattle-based law firm who has has represented hundreds of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “These windows are not common, but it’s a really good thing.”

Only four states — California, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Delaware — have opened up similar look-back windows, but Amala hopes New York’s clear outlines set new precedents.

“On some level what New York has done is now becoming a model for other states to consider,” Amala said. “It lets everyone know that, regardless of their current age, regardless of who abused them, they have one year to bring in a claim.”

Supporters of the bill say that trauma brought on by childhood sexual abuse can cause a victim to repress memories of the events. Under previous law, if the memories were accessed later in life and a state’s statute of limitations on a prospective lawsuit had passed, the victim would not be able to seek restitution. This temporary look-back window changes that playbook.

“Now that the … one-year window is taking effect, survivors of childhood abuse have the opportunity to seek justice against their abusers,” wrote State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, whose district includes parts of southern Brooklyn, in an email to the Brooklyn Eagle. While running for his seat last year, he proclaimed steadfast support of the bill. “The Child Victims Act gives voice to the voiceless and holds abusers and the institutions that harbored them accountable for heinous crimes that cause long-term damage.”

Effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome from child abuse are wide-ranging and can include substance abuse and difficulties forging and maintaining relationships. (One 2001 study from the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine and University College in London revealed that 35 percent of child sex abusers were also abused themselves.)

A two-minute video supporting the Child Victims Act, showing Aug. 13 in Times Square and featuring State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou, Rodneyse Bichotte and Catalina Cruz, discloses gut-wrenching details of why victims of sexual abuse decline to tell their stories for years, if they ever do at all.

Amala says that most of the retroactive lawsuits he’s dealt with do not include victims with repressed memories, however. Instead, they’d decided to keep their abuse a secret in an effort to move on with their lives.

“What we’ve seen in our work is kids don’t tell,” he said. “The people, when they get into their 20s and their 30s, the last thing they’re going to do is deal with something they’re trying to forget. It causes lifelong damage; it’s not really until people get older that they start to let their guard down and start to appreciate how damaging it can be.”

The law firm Herman Law is filing three lawsuits in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Aug. 14 that will be among the state’s first during the look-back window.

When California opened its window in 2003, more than 1,000 lawsuits were filed, most of them against the Roman Catholic Church. The 140 civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse on the part of priests in San Diego, led to the Roman Catholic Diocese there to file for bankruptcy. The New York Times speculates that the number of sex abuse lawsuits in New York this coming year will be much higher than those in California from 2003, because of the many sexual misconduct scandals that have garnered national attention of late. Newsday reports, “Thousands of cases are expected to be filed on that first day alone. At least two law firms are handling upward of 400 claims each, court officials said. Forty-five judges have been designated around the state to hear the claims, including five on Long Island. All the judges went through special training this summer.”

In part because of what went on in California 16 years ago, Roman Catholic dioceses in New York are bracing for impact.

In a letter to his parishioners published Aug. 7, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn diocese wrote, “We do not know how many lawsuits we will face during this window period, and if we will have to declare bankruptcy as a result. What we do know is that litigation can be a lengthy endeavor.”

The opening of the New York’s look-back window is also expected to prompt sexual abuse lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America, which was hit with charges of misconduct and covering up incidents in Pennsylvania last week. A group of law firms called Abused in Scouting is leading the charge against the organization, which, late last year, also announced it may be forced to file for bankruptcy due to the lawsuits.

School districts, foster care providers and other organizations could also be targets of litigation. Amala, whose firm expects to file at least 600 cases in New York state this coming year, many against the church and the Boy Scouts, said, “I think you’re going to see, when all is said and done, that everyone is going to recognize that this was a great moment for transparency and accountability.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, The Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.

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