New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has signed the Child Victims Act, making good on his promise to green light massive changes to the state’s criminal justice system at the beginning of this year’s legislative session. “We are here today,” Cuomo said at a press conference on February 14, 2019, “because survivors who endured unimaginable pain came forward with great courage and sacrificed their own privacy to make change for others.”
The work of years of advocacy from sexual abuse survivors, the Child Victims Act will help to ensure that child abusers throughout New York are brought to justice in both civil and criminal courts. “This bill brings justice to people who were abused,” Governor Cuomo continued, “and rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished for too long.”
The law’s most momentous changes come in the area of the statute of limitations, a law that restricts the amount of time in which NY sexual abuse survivors can press criminal charges or file a civil lawsuit. Under existing New York State law, sexual abuse cases could not be prosecuted in criminal courts more than 5 years after their occurrence, and sexual abuse survivors had only until their 18th birthday to pursue civil litigation against the offender and other responsible parties.
The Child Victims Act changes that in big ways.
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Now, child sexual abuse survivors have been granted until their 55th birthday to file a civil lawsuit. Criminal charges can be filed at any point before the victim’s 28th birthday, regardless of when in childhood the sexual abuse occurred. The Child Victims Act should also make it easier to file suit against the responsible parties. The law eliminates the previous requirement for a notice of claim in cases of sexual offenses against a minor.
But even more astounding could be the law’s effect on sexual abuse survivors who were once barred from filing suit due to the statute of limitations. In a provision referred to as the “window of justice,” the law opens a one-year window, beginning six months from the date of the law’s passage, in which sexual abuse survivors are allowed to file civil suits against responsible parties, regardless of when their abuse took place.
This window applies even to cases that were previously barred by the statute of limitations. In effect, the window of justice provision suspends the statute of limitations for a one-year time period, allowing survivors who were abused as far back as the 1940s to press their claims for compensation.
Following the bill’s historic passage, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman said, “for years, survivors of child sexual abuse looked to Albany for justice, and for years, their pleas went unanswered. No longer. With the Child Victims Act now signed into law by Governor Cuomo, survivors of child sexual abuse in New York State finally have the opportunity to seek justice against their abusers and the institutions who may have harbored them.”
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, who personally led the fight to pass the Child Victims Act for years, added, “When we took up this fight for the Child Victims Act, none of us thought it was going to be this tough or take this long. Government has a responsibility to stand up for the survivors of these heinous crimes. That is why the Senate Democratic Majority has been fighting alongside survivors and advocates for years to pass the Child Victims Act and remove the barriers that have been protecting predators.”
The signing of the Child Victims Act comes after more than a decade of opposition from the Catholic Church in New York. In his press conference, Governor Cuomo, himself a Roman Catholic, blamed the Church for holding up the bill for so long.
The Catholic Church is on the back foot after a fresh wave of sexual abuse scandals. In 2017, a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified over 300 Catholic priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse spanning back to the 1940s, marking the single largest investigation into Catholic sexual abuse ever conducted. In the aftermath, Catholic dioceses across the country have been publishing lists of credibly accused priests, in a desperate attempt to come to grips with the institution’s history of concealing sexual abuse from secular authorities.
There is little doubt that the passage of the Child Victims Act will bring more trouble upon the Church. When a similar “window of justice” was passed in California in 2002, the resulting wave of litigation resulted in $1.4 billion in successful legal claims against Catholic dioceses. No wonder the Catholic Church has opposed such measures for years.
“I believe it was the conservatives in the Senate who were threatened by the Catholic Church,” Governor Cuomo said in his press conference, taking aim at his counterparts across the aisle for holding up the legislation. This time, however, even Republican members of the New York State Assembly voted in favor of the Child Victims Act. The bill passed 63 to 0, without a single vote in opposition, as every Republican member of the Senate voted in favor.
In attendance at Governor Cuomo’s press conference were several survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. The disgraced gymnastics doctor, a pillar of the Michigan State University medical team, was convicted of serial child molestation in July 2017. Survivors of the doctor’s abuse have filed a wave of lawsuits against the University of Michigan, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee. “Nothing is more important for the healing of sexual abuse survivors than seeing their abusers and the institutions that enable abuse brought to justice,” said survivors Sarah Klein and Jessica Howard.