Survivors of child sexual abuse in New York may yet have a shot at justice, thanks to a new law called the Child Victims Act, or CVA, which opens up the rules on filing sexual abuse lawsuits past a certain age.
Within the past week, hundreds of survivors have stepped forward, bringing civil charges against individuals and institutions in the state of New York. Hundreds, if not thousands more are expected in the coming months.
The growing amount of sexual abuse lawsuits have all come in response to the CVA. Effective Wed., Aug. 14, the law establishes a one-year window in which survivors can file suit against their former abusers—no matter how long ago the sexual abuse occurred.
Before the CVA, child survivors had only to the age of 23 to seek justice in court. Now, even beyond the one-year “look-back window,” they can come forward and file civil lawsuits through the age of 55.
Advocates say it is necessary because survivors of child abuse often don’t come to terms with what happened to them until much later in life—and certainly not before the age of 23.
A Renewed Chance for Justice in New York
The expansion of New York’s statute of limitations promises to expose decades of abuse at the hands of predatory clergy members, teachers, Boy Scout leaders and family members, as well as the institutions that failed to protect victims. The New York law follows similar initiatives in other states where survivors had been prevented from filing suit simply because too much time had passed.
The majority of the cases filed in New York since Wednesday have been against Catholic dioceses and name specific priests responsible for sexual contact or abuse. Currently, with no age limit on filing suit, court officials expect to hear cases going back several decades.
But it’s not just the church facing a wave of legal action. Some cases threaten to further expose a trend of sexual abuse by leaders at the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Others have also been brought against public and private schools, universities, foster care organizations and sports associations—all this in the first week of the year-long window.
“Many people I speak to tend to think that this is a clergy window. It’s much more than that,” Partner Jayne Conroy, of Simmons Hanly Conroy, told the Buffalo News. “Many cases may not be filed until months from now.”
Institutions Like BSA Now Face Prospect of Bankruptcy
The wave of coming lawsuits is expected to be enough to threaten the financial viability of some institutions. Since 2004, 19 Catholic dioceses and congregations in the United States have filed bankruptcy due to the number of cases brought against them.
In New York, it is speculated that the Buffalo Diocese faces a similar risk, as more than 100 Catholic priests in western New York alone have been accused of sexually abusing or molesting children. Those cases have resulted in $17.5 million paid to more than 100 survivors through a settlement program which ended in May.
The settlement program did not, however, resolve all the litigation potentially facing the Buffalo Diocese. Seventeen plaintiffs rejected the settlement, and the diocese rejected 135 other plaintiffs’ claims. All those individuals who did not participate in the program can now sue, thanks to the CVA. By the end of the year, the diocese could face more than 150 additional lawsuits.
The BSA faces a similar situation. In 2012, BSA was ordered to release thousands of pages of documents detailing some 1,200 sexual abuse cases within the organization between 1965 and 1985. Other documents show the trend of behavior goes back to the very founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910.
Amid a string of lawsuits, the organization itself has acknowledged it cannot rule out filing for bankruptcy protection in the future. Since Wednesday, the BSA has been named in four suits brought in the state of New York.
Justice, Not Money, Is the Motivation Behind Lawsuits
Regardless of where or how long ago the abuse occurred, many survivors are more interested in exposing their abusers than in compensation. That includes the organizations that, whether through negligence or corruption, concealed a history of child sexual abuse.
In Buffalo, the reason why a number of victims refused the settlement program was precisely because it didn’t involve the release of the diocese’s records surrounding the abuse. Through the CVA, lawyers can now request those documents and interview leaders from the church. No longer will officials be able to conceal the names of accused priests.
“[For] the victims we speak with, generally the money is not the motivator,” Conroy told the Buffalo News. “These are not like accident cases. People are looking to make sure people know what happened and to make sure they’re stopping it going forward.”