A Catholic friend once told me that as a child, she knew which priest to stay away from. The savvy kids, the self-confident ones could tell there was something off about him. He went after the sad ones, the lonely ones, the naive, obedient ones.
We’re told that child sex abuse is a secret crime, hidden by shame and fear, and it too often is for the victim. Yet it’s striking how often the abuse is known to others—employers, supervisors, employees, colleagues, friends, family—who do little or nothing to stop the abuser. Priests were moved to a different parish. Teachers were fobbed off on another school. Prestigious physicians like USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and Rockefeller University pediatrician Reginald Archibald molested young patients for years and years, and despite people’s complaints, nothing happened. They were too respected, too valuable. There are, it seems, lots of Jeffrey Epsteins.
This turning a blind eye to child sex abuse should not surprise us, given our society’s general lack of interest in the suffering of children (though we pay it much lip service) and, for that matter, in justice for the adult victims of rape and abuse. Until recently, victims who attempted to get justice as adults found that their way was blocked by statutes of limitations that did not recognize that it can take people years to overcome this type of abuse sufficiently to take action.
New York used to have a particularly narrow statute of limitations for child sex abuse. Both criminal and civil cases generally had to be filed before the plaintiff turned 23, with some exceptions; civil suits against institutions, for example, had a cutoff age of 21. For over a decade, the insurance industry and the Catholic Church lobbied strenuously against legislative efforts to change those deadlines—the church spent around $3 million in lobbying—and thanks to a Republican-controlled state Senate, they were successful.
Now, with Democrats in charge of both houses in Albany, a new law called the Child Victims Act raises the survivor’s maximum age under the statute of limitations to 28 in criminal cases and 55 in civil suits. It’s about time.
The CVA has received a lot of attention because it provides for a one-year look-back window, in which anyone shut out by the previous statute of limitations may file a civil suit. On August 14, the first day the window was open, 439 cases were filed, led at 12:01 am by Jennifer Araoz, who claims she was raped at age 15 by Epstein. The Catholic Church got hit with the most suits, with at least 104 cases filed against the diocese of Buffalo alone, followed by the Boy Scouts and Rockefeller University. (Archibald died in 2007.)
Not everyone is happy about the new law. “There’s a reason for statutes of limitation,” said author and activist Judith Levine, who sits on the board of the National Center for Reason and Justice, a nonprofit that supports people charged with what it deems false child molestation accusations. “Memories fade, and evidence gets lost.”
It’s important to stress that the look-back window permits only civil suits. “No one is going to lose their liberty,” lawyer and retired New York state Supreme Court justice Emily Jane Goodman told me. (Indeed, the New York Civil Liberties Union abandoned its opposition to the CVA when the statute of limitations for criminal cases was not raised above 28 years of age.) Moreover, “most of the cases will be against institutions, like the Catholic Church. Very few will involve individual defendants, unless they are very prominent or wealthy, because lawyers won’t do this for free.” Your uncle Bob can probably relax.
“The victim has the burden of proof,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of Child USA, which advocated for the CVA. “In criminal cases, that burden is very high. If they have no corroborating evidence, it won’t go forward.” She is skeptical that innocent people will be convicted. “We have much more sophisticated methods of forensic questioning than in the day care cases of old.”
No innocents convicted? That seems unlikely, given the state of our justice system. But these errors probably won’t come from expanding the time during which cases may be filed by a mere five years.
“There’s always a risk of the wrong person being named in any kind of case,” said Goodman. “Before, child victims too often had no way to make their claim, so it’s a balance.”
What’s more, Hamilton pointed out that four states and the District of Columbia already have look-back windows, and the feared tsunami of new reports from earlier victims has not materialized.
“It’s basically to clear the decks,” she said, referring to the people who were shut out before. “Access to justice is the basic bedrock for civil rights.”
Hamilton added that #MeToo has been all about people making their experiences public—and while that’s important, stories can do only so much. “The focus has been on people telling their stories, and that’s fine,” she said. “But it’s not fair to ask child sex abuse victims to tell their stories if they can’t get justice.”