Childhood Sex Abuse Survivor Justice Alive in Albany’s Waning Days

Upper West Side Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. | NY STATE ASSEMBLY

BY PAUL SCHINDLERLegislators aiming to relax New York’s unusually stringent statute of limitations on sexual abuse of minors remain hopeful that, with the State Assembly already having taken action, the State Senate could yet follow suit before the session ends next week. According to out gay West Side Senator Brad Hoylman, “The Governor’s office is still talking about” a program bill could eliminate time limitations on child abuse survivors filing criminal actions and ease such limitations on civil action.

Currently, childhood sexual abuse survivors must either make a criminal complaint or file a civil lawsuit by age 23. Experts agree it can often take decades for a survivor to be ready to come forward.

Last week, the Democratic Assembly, by a vote of 139-7, adopted Upper West Side Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal’s Child Victims Act, which would allow victims to bring criminal cases up to the age of 28, file civil suits up to age 50, and allow what essentially is an 18-month look-back window for abuse survivors whose cases couldn’t be brought under current law to step forward.

Hoylman’s companion bill in the Senate which would eliminate any statute of limitations on criminal or civil action was denied a hearing in the Judiciary Committee earlier this year by the Republican Majority and diverted to the Rules Committee, where Hoylman said “it will never see the light of day.” Hoylman’s hope for overcoming the GOP’s resistance has been for Cuomo to follow through on a January commitment to eliminate all limits on the time a victim can come forward with a criminal complaint, allow civil suits to be filed for up to 50 years after any abuse, and create the look-back the Assembly approved.

The Governor has not yet introduced the anticipated program bill, but Hoylman said he remains confident, saying Cuomo’s office is weighing issues like the specifics of any look-back allowance for past victims. [Editor’s note: Since this story was published, Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced his program bill into the Senate Rules Committee, the Albany Times Union reported on June 15. In a written statement, the governor said, “This is about justice and I urge this measure to be passed before the end of session and allow these victims the ability to hold their abusers accountable — something they’ve wrongly been denied for far too long.” ]

“If the Governor wants to make it a priority, and I think he does, this issue could still be on track,” Hoylman told NYC Community Media.

The West Side Democrat also said his understanding is that the majority Republicans are planning to consider some version of statute of limitations relief in their conference. Bronx Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the rump Independent Democratic Conference that works in cooperation with the majority GOP, last week offered a compromise establishing a commission to weed out civil abuse claims that are without merit.

Hoylman said he’s heard no Republican reaction to Klein’s proposal and noted it might have been an example of a supporter of reform, such as Klein is, negotiating against himself. The proposal is also likely to spur opposition by victims’ advocates, Hoylman warned, a point echoed by Rosenthal, who called it a “distraction that simply imposes a new hurdle on victims.” Klein’s idea, she said, would also do nothing to draw Republican votes or lessen the opposition of groups including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and insurance companies.

West Side Senator Brad Hoylman. | DONNA ACETO

The West Side Senator predicted the Child Victims Act would be one of several issues resolved in the final days of the legislative session, along with controversial measures like mayoral control of the schools. While Hoylman said, “Obviously I think the better route would be for the Senate to take a vote on the bill voted out by the Assembly,” Rosenthal, acknowledging the resistance of Senate Republicans, said, “I think the Governor needs to step forward a reaffirm his statement from January with a program bill.”

In June 14 written statement, a coalition of nearly three dozen anti-violence groups and advocates for youth said, “With less than a week to go until the end of the 2017 Legislative Session, time is running out for survivors of childhood sexual abuse in their fight for justice. If the Governor is serious about justice for survivors he needs to convene a leaders meeting and hammer out the Child Victims Act now. We’ve seen him stand up against powerful institutional opponents before and break logjams in the Legislature with decisive action, so we know he can lead here too if he chooses. It is no longer enough to have meetings that don’t deliver, while survivors fight openly on the frontlines.”

For several weeks, the Governor’s office has declined to respond to a request for comment.