After Democrats cemented a majority in the New York State Senate last week, survivors of child sexual abuse may at last have their chance at justice, politicians and advocates say.
The Child Victims Act, a measure that would make it easier for sex-abuse victims to seek criminal charges or file lawsuits against their abusers, previously passed the state Assembly but has for years met resistance in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Now, after a decisive victory for Democrats last Tuesday, the bill could be headed to the Senate floor as early as the next legislative session; the act has been listed by Senate Democrats as an early priority.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, whose 27th Senate District covers a wide swath of Manhattan, and the bill’s sponsor for the last four years, said he hopes the bill is considered by the Senate “as soon as possible.” He referred to its potential passage as a “watershed moment for survivors of sexual abuse.”
“The gravity of this issue weighs on all of us — on all of our institutions and on our state government,” Hoylman said. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our children.”
The recent #MeToo movement, augmented by the national reckoning with sexual abuse across industries, has contributed to the bill gaining momentum, he said. Indeed, of the eight new Democratic senators headed to Albany, Hoylman said “virtually every one of them ran on support for the Child Victims Act,” demonstrating the act’s “extreme potency. This is clearly what New Yorkers want from their state senators.”
“As a society,” he said, “we are seeing a greater willingness to talk about these issues and call out abusers. Whether in movie studios, Olympic teams or religious organizations, institutions that have protected predators in the past are beginning to shift.”
Upper West Side Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal sponsored the bill in the Assembly, where the bill was passed with an “overwhelming” majority for the past few years. She said she is “hopeful” that the Senate’s change of leadership will “definitely allow the Child Victims Act to pass next year.”
“One reason the Senate flipped so dramatically is that the people were not being represented,” said Rosenthal, noting that 90 percent of New Yorkers say they support the act. “It’s time that survivors find some justice in the courts.”
The conversation resurfaces as Roman Catholic bishops around the country were ordered this week by the Vatican not to address until early next year the sex-abuse crisis that has rocked the church in recent months, according to a Wall Street Journal report. (They had been set to take up the matter at this week’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.) In August, a 1,300-page report by a Pennsylvania grand jury exposed systematic cover-up of abuse by Catholic hierarchy across the state, concerning 301 priests who abused over 1,000 children in the past several decades.
In New York, the Child Victims Act has met with fierce opposition by religious institutions, including the Catholic Church and Agudath Israel of America, a charedi lobbying group. (The Boy Scouts of America and insurance companies were also vociferous opponents to the bill.) Many religious groups argue that the provision could cause catastrophic financial harm for member institutions.
Current law gives victims until age 23 to file civil cases or seek criminal charges. Under the proposed act, victims could file civil suits until age 50 and seek criminal charges until age 28. The bill would also create a one-year window allowing victims to file civil lawsuits for alleged abuse that are now barred by the existing statute of limitations.
Just days before last week’s election, the Catholic Church announced for the first time that it would be willing to consider provisions for victims of child sex abuse to seek justice; previously, the church had unanimously opposed any such provisions.
“Whoever ends up controlling the (state) Senate, we would welcome discussions to resolve this issue in a way that is acceptable to survivors first, but also to religious and non-profit organizations who would be impacted,” a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference told the Daily News in an exclusive Nov. 5 report.
The Archdiocese of New York did not respond to The Jewish Week’s request for further comment.
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations for the Agudath Israel, said the group would be “monitoring the progress of the bill closely” but had no further comment.
Despite opposition from the right, other rabbinic voices have supported the bill. Over the past two years, Rabbi Dan Ornstein, the rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Albany, has drafted petitions and published articles in support of the act. Rabbi Ornstein said he is “encouraged” by the election results.
“The Agudath does not speak for me,” he said, adding that pursuing justice for child victims should be considered a “civil, moral and religious mandate.”
[The Child Victims Act] should be considered a civil, moral and religious mandate.
Asher Lovy, an advocate for victims of child sexual abuse and himself a survivor, has been singularly focused on the bill’s advancement for years. Now, he is excited to guide the bill “over the finish line.”
“This is going to happen,” said Lovy, the director of Za’akah, an organization that raises awareness about child sexual abuse in the Jewish community. He added that the newly elected Democratic senators are “largely grassroots supported,” and therefore less-likely to be beholden to special-interest groups that could impede the bill’s passage.
Though the bill’s ascendance has been a long and arduous road — the act has been “uniquely opposed by religious and business interests” and blocked “every step of the way” for over a decade, according to Hoylman — the fight for “justice” has been well worth it, said Lovy.
The bill is grounded in psychological research; the overwhelming majority of child sex-abuse victims do not report the abuse until they are well into adulthood, according to Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, a non-profit that works to prevent child abuse, and a national expert on the subject.
Hamilton began supporting the Child Victims Act when it was first introduced by Assemblywoman Marge Markey over a decade ago. Since then, she has witnessed an “army of advocates and survivors” mobilize around the act. “We are very close,” she said.
The bill, she said, never should have become a partisan issue. “The act is about identifying hidden predators and shifting the cost of the abuse from the victims to the ones who caused it. It’s just fundamental fairness,” she said. With each passing year when the bill has been “in limbo,” predators “operated freely, and the cover-up became even more entrenched. That will all change soon.”
The time for this bill is now.
Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs for Safe Horizon, a leading victim assistance organization, echoed Hamilton’s sentiments.
“It is always stunning to me that this ever became a partisan issue,” he said. While he “couldn’t have imagined it would take this long” for the act to see the Senate floor, he is confident that “the time for this bill is now.”
“It’s getting more and more difficult for people to dismiss this by saying, ‘Well, why didn’t he/she go to the police when it happened? Why wasn’t this reported sooner?’” Our society is beginning to “understand the intense pressures victims face not to come forward.
“When someone takes advantage of a child, the perpetrator knows full well how to pressure and threaten a child so he/she doesn’t disclose,” said Polenberg. “What drives me is the ability to change the law to reflect the reality of this dynamic.”
Gary Greenberg, a sex-abuse survivor and upstate investor who created a political action committee that tried to get pro-Child Victims Act Democrats elected, said the “people of New York have spoken: They want the Child Victims Act passed.”
“Voters turned out and let our politicians know that we will no longer stand by and protect sexual abusers from facing justice,” said Greenberg. “We will no longer deny kids the peace of mind they deserve.”