For more than a decade, survivors of sexual abuse headed to the New York capitol of Albany with one goal in mind: to convince lawmakers to change the statute of limitations for filing charges over child sex abuse.
These survivors shared gut-wrenching stories, with legislators and the press. They launched political action committees to back candidates who the supported measure and target those who didn’t. And they steadily grew in strength.
On Monday, their advocacy paid off, when the New York state legislature passed the Child Victims Act, more than a decade after state legislators started introducing it. The bill will now let child sex abuse survivors have until their 55th birthday to sue their abuser, and until their 28th birthday to file criminal charges.
Before the bill, New Yorkers who’d endured sex abuse as children had only until their 23rd birthday to do either.
For crimes for which the statute of limitations have already expired, survivors will now have a year to sue — no matter how long ago the abuse took place. That one-time, so-called “lookback window” will formally open six months from the date the law takes effect. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill shortly.
“Countless young people were abused. But it wasn't their only victimization,” Democratic state Sen. Brad Hoylman said in a statement released after the bill’s passage. “Because after years, often decades of living with this trauma, many of these young men and women tried to seek justice. New York denied them that opportunity. No longer.”
Reforming statutes of limitations
With the passage of the Child Victims Act, New York joins a growing number of states considering reforming statutes of limitations around sex crimes against children.
In 2018, after the #MeToo movement exploded and as the nation watched former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s trial for sex abuse, 15 states introduced bills to reform the statute of limitations around child sex abuse, according to Child USA, which advocates for statute of limitations reform. While just two of those measures were enacted, there are signs that the hunger for statute of limitations reform is growing: In 2017, just 10 states introduced bills to do so, Child USA CEO Marci Hamilton told VICE News last March.
Right now, 41 states, and the federal government, don’t have any statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions for child sex abuse, at least for some types of crimes, Child USA found. However, only nine states have no civil statute of limitations for some kinds of child sex abuse crimes.
Multiple New York state legislators announced, on the legislature floor, that they had survived child sex abuse, according to Buffalo News. “It is almost unthinkable that I could stand here as a New York state senator to speak about something that I thought I would probably take to my grave,” Democratic state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi said, the Democrat and Chronicle reported.
At a press conference Monday, Cuomo blamed both Republicans and New York’s Catholic Church leaders for delaying the bill’s passage for years. While the bill had passed the New York state House numerous times, it kept stalling out in the Senate, which remained controlled by Republicans for years.
“The abuse of minors is so brutal the church cannot remain indifferent to this”
“It’s not a pleasant position to have the Catholic Church criticize you but Pope Francis gives me comfort on this issue,” Cuomo told reporters. “The abuse of minors is so brutal the church cannot remain indifferent to this.”
"I feel I am wholly in line with what Pope Francis has said on this issue," added Cuomo, who is Catholic. "I understand the church bureaucracies’ issue. There could be financial ramifications. There could be embarrassment. And that’s more because of the way they handled the issue."
Catholic Church drops opposition
While the Catholic Church has generally supported bills that loosen statute of limitations on sex crimes, it has also long lobbied against bills that allow for lookback windows, which can result in costly settlements. When California opened one up, for example, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled with 500-odd claimants for $660 million.
But last week, after it became clear that the bill was going to pass — and pass soon — the New York State Catholic Conference said it no longer opposed the legislation, since the bill will also allow people to sue public institutions during the “lookback window” period.
“We therefore remove our previous opposition and pray that survivors find the healing they so desperately deserve,” the Catholic Conference tweeted.
When Democrats grabbed control of the Senate in the November midterm elections, Democratic state Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal knew it was only a matter of time until the bill became law. Rosenthal had introduced the Child Victims Act into the Assembly every session for the past three years.
“I don’t think people quite understood the depth of this crisis, so how badly this affected people’s lives,” she told VICE News late last year, before the bill’s passage. “The past three, four years, the advocates really have upped their game. Survivors have become emboldened to risk the pain of reliving it by talking about it. You know, people really urgently want to get this bill passed into law, and so all of those combined, I think, get us to the place where we can do it.”
Cover: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference to discuss Amazon's decision to bring a new corporate location to New York City, November 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Correction 1/30 at 6:30 p.m. ET: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated how frequently Democratic state Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal introduced the Child Victims Act. The post has been updated with the correct number.