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Legislature votes to expand legal recourse for survivors of childhood sexual abuse

Matt Ryan
New York Now
Childhood sexual abuse survivor Richard Tollner meets with Governor Andrew Cuomo shortly before the Child Victims Act was to be voted on at the State Capitol Monday.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are hailing the passage of the Child Victims Act at the New York State Capitol, which will give victims their day in court.

At a rally at the Capitol, survivors and their advocates celebrated just before the vote was held in the state Senate and Assembly.

Michael Polenberg with Safe Horizons, a group that provides social services for victims of abuse and violent crime, said survivors have had a long wait for justice.

“For too long, we’ve had one of the most restrictive laws in the nation,” Polenberg said. “And that changes today.”

The measure expands the statute of limitations to report crimes of childhood sexual abuse to age 28, from 23. The statute of limitations for civil suits will now be age 55. In addition, all survivors, regardless of their age, will be granted a one-year “lookback” window to bring civil court cases against those they say abused them.

Survivors were joined by the sponsors of the measure, past and present, and the legislative leaders, including Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who lamented how long survivors have waited for the legislation.

“We hear you,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And we are really, really sorry it took so long.”

Until this year, the bill was stalled in the Senate, which was formerly led by Republicans. The Catholic Church had long opposed the bill, but a few days ago, it dropped its objections when the measure was amended to make clearer that public schools, hospitals and other public institutions also would be included among the organizations that survivors can sue.

Richard Tollner, a longtime advocate for the measure, said a priest repeatedly sexually abused him while he was a teenager at a Catholic high school on Long Island.

He reported the incidents to school officials but did not get a response. The priest was one of the subjects of a grand jury probe of alleged sexual abuse in the diocese. No charges were ever filed. The priest is now retired and no longer has an active ministry.

Tollner said he’ll be filing a lawsuit soon.

“My next step is to review everything and bring my case forward,” Tollner said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Tollner, who will turn 60 next month, said he thinks the law should go further and not limit the statute of limitations for criminal actions against alleged abusers. Tollner said it often takes survivors decades to come to terms with what happened and be ready to seek legal recourse.

Some other states, including California, set the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution at age 40, while other states, like Maine, have no statute of limitations for reporting the crimes. And Tollner said New York no longer imposes a statute of limitations for reporting rape.

“We have the mindset that that should be the same way for childhood sex abuse,” Tollner said. “And we’ll be looking at the law in the future to change that.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also met with survivors of childhood sexual abuse before the vote, said he’s not swayed by concerns expressed by some organizations, like the Boy Scouts, and even some public schools, that numerous lawsuits and settlements might lead to bankruptcy.

“Then they shouldn’t have committed the crime,” said Cuomo.

Cuomo intends to sign the bill.

Supporters said the new law will not only help survivors, it also could prevent others from becoming victims since publicly naming alleged perpetrators would bring attention to them and make it more difficult for them to repeat a crime.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.