Around the country, the Roman Catholic Church if fighting to prevent New York and other states from easing statutes of limitations that govern when child sexual abuse victims can file a civil lawsuit in such cases. According to a report from The New York Times, strict statutes of limitations in New York and elsewhere have prevented a number of criminal prosecutions against priests and other accused abusers, and have blocked victims from filing civil claims against the church for protecting pedophile priests.
New York’s statute of limitations, one of the strictest in the nation, requires abuse victims to make reports by the time they are 23 in order to file civil claims, and in many cases, for criminal charges to be brought. As we’ve reported previously New York State Assemblywoman Caroline Markey has for several years sponsored the New York Child Victim’s Act, which would extend the statute of limitations until a victim reaches 28. The proposed law would also give any adult victim of child sexual abuse, regardless of age, a one-time year-long period in which they could file a civil claim.
According to the Times, victims and their advocates are pushing for similar laws in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. But in New York and many other states, the Catholic Church has successfully blocked such reform. While Bishops in New York, for example, have said they would not oppose extending the limit for criminal prosecutions to 28, they are fierce in their opposition to extending the deadline for civil claims. Church officials argue that such proposals are aimed more at bankrupting the Church than providing aid to victims. They also assert that any evidence presented decades after alleged incidents of abuse occurred will be unreliable.
It’s easy to understand why the Church would like to keep current laws as they are. Over the past decade or so, dozens of Roman Catholic dioceses have been caught up in child abuse scandals. It’s become clear that in many instances, Bishops and other high-ranking church officials sought to cover-up incidents and protect abusive priests. Such practices allowed many pedophile priests to go undetected for years, leading to the abuse of untold numbers of children.
In states where statutes of limitations are generous, the Catholic Church has paid a heavy price for its failure to report sexual abusers. According to the Times, victims in California filed more than 500 civil lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in 2003, after the legislature passed a one-year window in which to file such claims.
Since then, only two states, Delaware and Ohio, have passed similar laws. According to the Times, similar legislation has been defeated in Colorado, Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and New York. In Colorado and New York, the Church has even hired lobbying and public relations firms to wage high-priced campaigns against the proposals.
Advocates for child abuse victims point out that many are unable to talk about abuse or face their accusers until they are well into adulthood. They argue that changing restrictive statutes of limitations is vital if hundreds of victims of pedophile priests and church cover-ups hope to get any justice.
“Even when you have an institution admitting they knew about the abuse, the perpetrator admitting that he did it, and corroborating evidence, if the statute of limitations has expired, there won’t be any justice,” Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, told the Times.