‘On Aug. 14, the New York Child Victims Act’s two-year civil sexual abuse statute of limitations “window” will close, and older victims whose claims had previously been time-barred will be foreclosed from seeking justice.’
The opportunity to hold child sexual abuse perpetrators—and the institutions that enabled them—accountable is about to expire for many suffering survivors who were assaulted in New York. On Aug. 14, the New York Child Victims Act’s two-year civil sexual abuse statute of limitations “window” will close, and older victims whose claims had previously been time-barred will be foreclosed from seeking justice. This legislation also extends the statute of limitations to age 55 for child sex abuse survivors whose claims have not previously been time-barred. We urge our leaders to take immediate action to reform the current law to ensure that victims, no matter their age, have continuing access to the courts.
Statute of limitations reform must acknowledge that the trauma child sexual abuse causes can delay an individual from speaking out about their abuse. According to CHILD USA, most child sexual abuse victims do not disclose their abuse until adulthood—the average age to report is 52 years old. For far too long perpetrators and institutions have weaponized this trauma, often engaging in sinister conduct to silence victims, and shelter abusers, until victims’ right to civil recourse runs out.
Continuing legal reform is urgent to prevent the statute of limitations from offering refuge to sexual abusers and the institutions—schools, health care providers, camps, athletic, and religious organizations—who protect perpetrators who present ongoing and potent dangers. Victims must be able to hold institutions accountable for facilitating and covering up their employee’s sexual abuse and for their indifference to the wellbeing, and suffering, of the children in their care. These cases perpetrate unique harm against their victims and often create powerful barriers to reporting.
This reality is exemplified by claims that our law firms recently filed under the Child Victims Act. The abuse detailed in these cases—abuse suffered by two Cold Spring Harbor High School students in Huntington, New York, who as teenagers were repeatedly and systemically sexually abused by teachers at the school—had been kept quiet for decades. In these cases, the school hid the fact that perpetrator teachers committed serious child sexual abuse crimes from the police, and discouraged a victim and her family from reporting it. The ongoing abuse the teenage victims suffered, and the steps the school district took that enabled the abuse, protected the abusers in the decades that followed and silenced the victims.
This highlights the challenges in reporting and taking legal action in cases of institutionally-driven childhood sexual abuse. Some of the worst institutional offenders—the Catholic Church, Weinstein Company, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics—declare bankruptcy in an effort to deny victims the justice they deserve.
We recognize that reform means standing up to the powerful and wealthy institutions which have thrown their full financial and political power fighting measures that would make it easier for survivors to file civil claims. A 2019 report found that the Catholic Church had spent nearly $11 million lobbying against statute of limitations legislation, including spending $2.9 million to campaign against New York’s Child Victims Act.
We urge our leaders to enact comprehensive sexual abuse statute of limitations reform which provides all victims, no matter their age, access to justice and accountability. We also urge the New York state legislature to take immediate action to enact the Adult Survivors Act, to permit adult sexual abuse survivors, no matter their age, to file civil claims.
Statutes of limitations have long failed childhood sexual abuse survivors, particularly those victimized by powerful and entrenched institutions. Although New York’s Child Victims Act statute of limitations “window” was an important and meaningful step that has helped countless survivors of childhood sexual abuse seek the justice they deserve, our leaders must now take firm and decisive action to make sure all victims, no matter their age, have access to justice, and to ensure that perpetrators and institutional enablers will be held accountable.
Debra Greenberger is a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, and Andrew Shubin is a managing partner at Shubin Law.