A scandal involving New York City’s elite Horace Mann prep school has renewed focus on the state laws that make it exceedingly difficult for now-adult victims of child sexual abuse to seek redress in the courts. According to The New York Times, which broke the Horace Mann scandal in an article published in its Sunday Magazine, New York has one of the most restrictive statutes of limitations for filing civil lawsuits, and sometimes criminal charges, in child molestation cases. Unfortunately for New York child sex abuse victims, recent attempts to liberalize those laws have been thwarted by the Roman Catholic Church and other powerful interests.
In the New York Times Magazine article, which was authored by an alum of the school, a number of former Horace Mann students alleged that they had been sexually abused decades ago by several now-deceased teachers when they were matriculating at the Bronx private school. While the school dismissed two teachers after students reported inappropriate conduct, Horace Mann officials never informed police or parents of the allegations. In another case, a prominent music teacher was allowed to remain at Horace Mann for years after he was accused of abusing a student, though he was prohibited from going on trips with students. The teacher, Johannes Somary, died in 2011. The student who reported his alleged misconduct to the school committed suicide two years earlier.
Since the Times magazine article was published, Brooklyn DA Robert Johnson has established a hotline for Horace Mann students and alumni to report instances of child abuse. However, it’s unclear what good that will do for victims who came forward for the Times article, all of whom were abused 20 or 30 years ago. According to the Times, New York’s law 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. It’s also not clear if private schools in the state have the same obligation as public schools to report child abuse.
“New York is one of the worst states in the country for child sex abuse victims,” Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University who specializes in sexual abuse law, told The New York Times.
Prompted in part by the child sex abuse allegations that embroiled the Catholic Church, several states, including Connecticut, California and Delaware, have amended their laws to permit the fling of civil lawsuits many years after incidents of abuse occurred. But according to the New York Times, the Catholic Church and other institutions that fear financially damaging lawsuits have successfully lobbied to prevent such reforms in New York.
For several years, Queens assembly woman Caroline Markey has sponsored legislation that would extend the reporting deadline until victims are 28, and which would provide a one-year period during which the courts would consider old abuse claims. Markey told the Times that the Horace Mann scandal could be changing the political climate that has prevented passage of the legislation thus far, stating that it has taken the focus off of the Catholic Church, and shown that child abuse can happen anywhere.