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ALBANY, N.Y. (ChurchMilitant.com) - The window for filing sex abuse lawsuits in the state of New York has just expanded, per executive order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — getting the attention of the state's eight dioceses. New Yorkers who were sexually assaulted as children will now have a little more time to take legal action against their alleged abusers.
For months, New York lawmakers had been calling for a longer extension of the look-back window — an opportunity created as part of the Child Victims Act (CVA) that allows survivors abused as children to file civil suits beyond the normal statute of limitations.
Then on March 22, non-essential court filings were frozen as part of the state's efforts to limit the spread of the Wuhan virus. Lawmakers felt that survivors needed more time to decide whether or not to come forward with allegations and pursue a lawsuit.
Victims of sex abuse may now file by Jan. 14, 2021, rather than Aug. 13 of this year.
Cuomo said the extension is needed: "Because of the reduction in court services, we want to extend that window and we'll extend it for an additional five months," Cuomo said.
"Because people need access to the courts to make their claim — because justice too long delayed is justice denied," he emphasized.
The CVA had also adjusted the statute of limitations for pursuing criminal charges and civil suits against sexual abusers and institutions. Before this became law, a survivor of child sexual abuse had until the age of 23 to file charges or a civil claim. Now, with the passage of the law, survivors have up until the age of 28 to file criminal charges, and age 55 to file a lawsuit.
The Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and the state's public schools all said they were now preparing for the possibility of a large number of alleged abuse victims to file lawsuits. The Church had voiced some opposition to earlier proposed versions of the Child Victims Act on the grounds they did not provide the same protections for child abuse victims in public institutions, including schools, as it did for private institutions. The final version of the law eliminated these differences.
The diocese of Rochester had filed for bankruptcy in September 2019 in response to the lawsuits filed during the legal window. Since parishes and charitable affiliates of the diocese are separately incorporated, they are not affected by the diocese's bankruptcy effort. United States Bankruptcy Judge Paul Warren has since ordered a temporary freeze on claims and dozens of abuse lawsuits against the diocese.
Filing for bankruptcy in February, the Buffalo diocese has been named in more than 250 sex abuse lawsuits under the legal window. Last week the diocese of Buffalo had requested a federal court halt all outstanding clergy sex abuse litigation against it as it attempts to navigate through bankruptcy proceedings.
Entities also face lawsuits for their alleged role in failing to halt sex abuse by clergy or others. St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Irondequoit and Holy Name parish in Elmira are named in over two dozen claims. Catholic Charities and the Catholic Youth Organization have been named in lawsuits 15 times.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman who sponsored the CVA along with Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal — both Manhattan Democrats — applauded the five-month extension, but were not satisfied.
"Survivors need the assurance that New York will stand with them even after the pandemic ends," said Hoylman, noting the current crisis has compounded the need for a longer look-back period.
"Coming forward as a survivor of child sexual abuse takes courage, focus and lots of time," he explained. "As the unemployment rate spikes above 14%, it's unreasonable to expect survivors of child sexual abuse to do the emotional and legal work necessary to file CVA lawsuits while simultaneously fighting to pay rent and put food on the table," he added.
The diocese of Rockville Centre in November 2019 filed a suit challenging the New York lawsuit legislation itself, claiming the window for lawsuits violated the state constitution's due process clause. The diocese argued the legislature may only revive formerly time-barred claims "only where they could not have been raised earlier." Sex abuse victims could have brought civil claims in the previous window, the diocese said.
And in mid-2019, the archdiocese of New York filed a lawsuit against 31 insurance companies, charging that many intend to limit or deny insurance claims for lawsuits filed in the legal window. The lawsuit argued that the archdiocese is entitled to all benefits of the policies, including coverage of legal fees during litigation.