More victims of child sexual abuse will have the chance to hold their abusers accountable after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act last week.
The law, passed by the State Senate on Jan. 28 and officially signed into law by the governor on Feb. 14, will raise the age in the statute of limitations for people to seek criminal charges against their abusers from 23 to 28; allow victims of such crimes to initiate a civil lawsuit before they turn 55; and provide those whose claims have been time-barred with a one-year window to initiate lawsuits.
“Today is a new day for survivors of child sexual abuse in New York state,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, who co-sponsored the bill. “The Child Victims Act will not only give victims a chance at justice, it will also protect our communities from abusers.”
The passage comes several months after the state attorney general’s office issued subpoenas to the eight dioceses in the state, including the Diocese of Rockville Centre, as it launched an investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the cover-up of those crimes. On Feb. 15, the Diocese of Brooklyn released the names of 108 clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse against minors.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre continues to pay settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse through its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. In the first two phases of the program, 297 claims were filed, according to Camille Biros, an administrator for the program. Of those, 250 settlements have been paid or are in the payment process. According to two lawyers who represent dozens of victims in the program, settlement amounts have ranged from $25,000 to $500,000. To receive compensation, victims had to agree that they would not pursue legal action against the church in the future.
Among those who received settlements was Sean O’Brien, 47, formerly of Rockville Centre, who said he was sodomized repeatedly in the basement of the St. Agnes Cathedral rectory by the Rev. John J. McGeever while serving as an altar boy in 1981 and 1982. McGeever died in 1993.
Hundreds gathered at Kasey’s Kitchen and Cocktails last month for a fundraiser to support O’Brien, who for years has endured what he calls a “vicious cycle” of physical and emotional pain stemming from the childhood abuse, which prevents him from working and providing for his wife and three daughters. He said he was excited for survivors who will finally get their day in court.
“The signing into law of the Child Victims Act is a monumental victory for those who spent years and, in some cases, decades working to make this a reality,” O’Brien told the Herald. “Every situation is unique and deserves special attention with regards to specific circumstances, and I continue to pray that each and every victim has an opportunity to receive the support they need and deserve.”
On July 29, the diocese launched Phase III of the program, which addresses claims of abuse by members of religious orders who have worked under contract, or by official assignment, in its parishes, schools or charitable agencies. The deadline to register to be compensated in the program is March 31. Three claims have been filed so far, Biros said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of sexual abuse victims in New York — and who was portrayed by the actor Stanley Tucci in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” which focused on the Boston Globe’s series of stories detailing the abuse allegations against priests — said that the Child Victims Act gives survivors a chance to heal deep wounds and gives children an opportunity to be protected.
“By standing on the determined and bold shoulders of sexual abuse victims or survivors, New York has set an example for most states and countries to follow when amending sexual abuse statute of limitations laws,” Garabedian wrote in an email to the Herald. “For those sexual abuse victims who have unfortunately taken their own lives because of the trauma of being sexually abused, you have not been forgotten.”
The law also eliminates the need to file a notice of claim for sexual offenses committed against a minor and requires judicial training with respect to crimes involving such abuse.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre said it echoes the statement of the Catholic Bishops of New York State, which wrote that they had long called for strengthening the Child Victims Act. They will continue to advocate for removal of the statute of limitations, the statement added, as well compensation programs for those who prefer it to litigation and mandatory safe environment training for anyone who works with children.
“We pray that the passage of the Child Victims Act brings some measure of healing to all survivors by offering them a path of recourse and reconciliation,” the Bishops wrote. “The legislation now recognizes that child sexual abuse is an evil not just limited to one institution, but a tragic societal ill that must be addressed in every place where it exists.”