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Child Abuse Claims Against the Church -- A Need for Reform of NY's Statute of Limitations

According to an article in the Journal News along with many other media outlets, a priest affiliated with St. Margarets of Pearl River has been accussed of abusing a child.  Apprently, the incident occurred almost 30 years.  This story is troubling on multiple levels.  However, without discussing whether or not the claims are actually true, it raises a major problem with the state of the law in New York. 

New York's statute of limitations is considered to be among the most restrictive in the nation, giving victims of child sex abuse only until they are 23 years old to make a complaint. According to a report from Reuters, many other states have no time limit on filing criminal charges or civil lawsuits in cases of child sexual abuse, while others that do have time limits are much more generous. Pennsylvania, for example, allows civil charges to be filed until victims are 30 years old and criminal charges to be filed until victims turn 50.

Because of the trauma they suffer, victims of child sexual abuse often aren't able to report the crime or confront their abusers until they are well into adulthood. In some cases where victims and their families did attempt to make timely reports, the Catholic Church and other powerful institutions actively worked to protect abusers, sometimes by pressuring and intimidating victims into staying silent. Given these circumstances, expecting the majority of victims to come forward by their 23rd birthday is unfair and unrealistic.

Advocates for child sexual abuse victims have tried to change the law in New York. For years now, Queen's Assemblywoman Caroline Markey has sponsored the New York Child Victim's Act, which would extend the statute of limitations to a victim's 28th birthday, and also provide a temporary, one-year window in which victims of any age could file a civil claim. Unfortunately, lobbying by the Catholic Church and other groups that would face liability if victims are able to pursue their claims have successfully prevented the bill's passage.

In states with more reasonable statutes of limitations, adult victims of child sexual abuse have been able to find justice. In California, for example, a one-year window similar to what's been proposed in New York led to hundreds of cases filed against churches, youth groups and other organizations. In other states, generous statutes of limitations have led to abuse convictions, and settlements and jury awards amounting to millions of dollars for victims. Ex-priest Mercure, for example, was only held accountable for two of his crimes because his victims in Massachusetts after he brought them across state lines from New York.

The number of New York victims who could eventually gain some kind of closure with statute of limitations reform could be enormous. In the Archdiocese of New York alone, about 60 priests have been accused of abusing children, though some experts say the true number could be much higher. However, victims of abusive priests would not be the only beneficiaries of a reporting extension. Dozens of men who claim they were abused by a former football coach while they were students at Brooklyn Poly Prep some 25 years ago could finally pursue claims. Reform would also provide now-adult students of New York's elite Horace Mann School with an avenue for legal recourse against the teachers they claim molested them decades ago, as well as the school officials who failed to protect them from predators.

Recent convictions in Pennsylvania of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn, who was accused of covering for abusive priests, have put child sexual abuse in the spotlight. Victims and their advocates in New York are hoping that the conversation prompted by those cases will spur momentum in the state to finally pass statute of limitations reform.

"I think what has happened in Pennsylvania is going to have a major impact," Assemblywoman Markey told Reuters, adding that many victims of child sex abuse "can't find justice in this state."

As a society, it is time to change this statute of limitations.  Having such a short time frame emboldens the Church and similiar institutions to hide such crimes.  In addition, by keeping such claims out of the Courts, society loses the abilty from learning about these incidents and thus the chance from preventing it from occurring again.   

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