For decades, thousands of New Yorker childhood sexual abuse survivors have been stonewalled into silence by the Roman Catholic Church. Many of these survivors have been outright barred from bringing their allegations to court for years.
But on Wednesday, August 14, 2019, with the Child Victims Act officially going into effect, this trend saw a much-needed, landmark change — a change that victims’ rights activists and survivors hope will proliferate throughout the United States and beyond.
As the Child Victims Act goes into effect, many survivors of clergy sex abuse (those who were abused in the past by New York clergymen) will now have a renewed chance at seeking justice and compensation. The long-awaited Act, which had been scheduled to take effect on Wednesday, was met with an immediate barrage of New York State Supreme Court lawsuits.
As reported by numerous outlets, including The New York Post, the majority of these lawsuits targeted the 7 dioceses across New York state. In the short 5 hours between the Act’s start time at midnight and 5 a.m., over 200 child sexual abuse lawsuits were filed. By 8:30 a.m., that number climbed to over 350. Hundreds more are expected in the coming days.
It is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 sexual abuse lawsuits will be filed during the next year.
What Is the New York Child Victims Act?
The Child Victims Act, which passed through the New York state legislature in February 2019, extends the state’s statute of limitations that had previously kept thousands of sexual abuse victims from filing criminal and civil lawsuits against the perpetrators of their abuse.
Because so many victims were children when they were abused, the state’s old statutes of limitations were barring individuals from accessing the legal system. Now, those who survived sexual abuse as children are able to file civil claims against their abusers until age 55, a major change from the previous age limit of 23.
The new sex abuse law opens a 1-year period during which victims who were previously kept from filing sex abuse lawsuits can now take action to pursue justice and compensation. During this 1-year period, it does not matter how long ago a person’s abuse took place – people who were abused more than 20, 30, or even 40 years ago can seek the opportunity to address their traumatic experiences through civil lawsuits.
The Act passed unanimously in New York with a 63-0 vote. Its success was due in part to the amount of public outcry and advocacy that supported victims’ rights to pursue litigation against the Catholic Church and other people and/or institutions.
Silenced by the Church, Old and New Victims Step Forward
Though the Child Victims Act opens up a pathway for any New York childhood sexual abuse survivor abused by any predator — including those beyond the Catholic Church — to file a claim, an overwhelming majority of the lawsuits do involve Catholic priests, according to a report by USA Today.
Across many decades, the Catholic Church has actively worked to conceal information about sexual abusers within their religious organization. In many cases, predator priests and clergymen were protected by the Church, which decided to keep allegations of sexual abuse silent instead of ex-communicating predators or turning them over to law enforcement.
Despite the recent trend of Catholic dioceses releasing lists of credibly accused clergymen that had formerly operated (or now currently operate) under their purview, many sexually abusive priests and clergymen have until now gone unnamed. Unsurprisingly, these lists are often incomplete or lack details.
Many of the new lawsuits that will be filed with the opening of New York’s Child Victims Act involve clergymen who have not yet been publicly named. As more childhood sexual abuse victims make the decision to share their stories with law firms and the public, it is likely that many new abusers will be uncovered.
The reasons for a sometimes-decades-long delay in reporting abuse are multifold, but have much to do with victims not coming to terms with their abuse and the long-term effects of the abuse, until years or even decades after the abuse occurred.
Under New York law, new clergy abuse lawsuits will also involve people who had previously filed claims against the Catholic Church but had their cases thrown out due to the state’s statute of limitation laws, which had required victims to file claims before the age of 24-years-old.
Beyond the Church, other New York suits have named the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), universities, public schools, and family members of the abused, among other institutions and people. Another new claim was filed under the Child Victims Act against known pedophile and prostitution-ring leader Jeffrey Epstein who died in jail last weekend.
New York Expects Thousands of Lawsuits Under New Law
With at least 2,000 lawsuits expected, New York has taken proactive measures to ensure cases are heard in an efficient and timely manner. As part of this effort, the New York State Court system has appointed 45 judges to deal specifically with the wave of sexual abuse lawsuits to come.
Though the results of the Child Victims Act remain to be seen, one may hope that the state of New York serves as a guiding example to other states with similarly restrictive statutes of limitations.
Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks said,
“The revived Child Victims Act cases are critically important cases, raising numerous challenging legal issues, that must be adjudicated as consistently and expeditiously as possible across the state. We are fully committed to providing appropriate and sufficient resources to achieve that goal.”
In the growing nonpartisan national effort to hold sexually abusive people and institutions accountable, the non-profit group Zero Abuse Project released a joint statement summarizing fairly well the landmark moment now taking place in New York: “The sheer volume of lawsuits filed today is both simultaneously heartbreaking and encouraging. It is indicative of just how deep-rooted the problem if child sex abuse is in our country.”