New York State Assemblywoman Marge Markey’s introduction to what has become a cause in her legislative life occurred a few years ago, when someone arrived at her home to ask for assistance from her and her husband, a judge. The person said he was sexually abused as a child, and Markey discovered that the more she tried to help him seek some justice, the more she was stymied by the state’s statutes of limitations. Then, she said, she realized “that’s my job” to change the law. And for four years, she has tried.
For three of those years, the Child Victims’ Act has handily passed the State Assembly, only to be held up in the Republican-controlled Senate. Now that the Senate Democrats are in power, its chances have improved, and Markey is “cautiously optimistic” about the chances for her legislation extending the statute of limitations by five years and creating a one-year “open window” for sexual abuse claims.
The political shifts in Albany are not the only reason for this optimism. A small but increasingly vocal group of Jewish survivors of sexual abuse are lobbying for passage of this worthy bill, and their bravery is welcome. For years, Catholic Church leaders have argued that this reform is targeted against only them. When the former yeshiva bochers roamed the halls of Albany recently to talk to lawmakers, that argument was put to rest.
No religious group ought to feel stigmatized by this legislation, for sadly enough the vast majority of cases of child sexual abuse occur within the family. Wherever it happens, predators nefariously take warped advantage of a child’s need for safety and security. The victim may suffer few, if any, physical injuries, but the emotional and psychological scars are painful and deep and often don’t surface for years.
That is why extending the statute of limitations is necessary. Who among us, as a child, is willing and able to accuse a parent, coach, priest or rabbi of unspeakable acts? It can take decades for a victim to have the fortitude to come forward and face the authority figure he or she once trusted. And, as evidenced by the massive cover-up in the Catholic Church, institutions and tight-knit communities are adept at stalling, silencing and protecting their own instead of the public good.
The most controversial clause in the legislation would create a one-year window allowing victims of any age to seek civil damages for past instances of child sexual abuse. Understandably, there’s concern this will lead to false claims and slanderous accusations that can ruin a person’s reputation and bankrupt a defense. But the evidence says otherwise. One veteran prosecutor said that she’s seen only a “handful” of false claims over more than two decades. Instead, what states such as California and Delaware have learned as they’ve opened such windows is that hundreds of victims emerge after years of crouching in darkness.
With the proper safeguards, allowing abuse victims to face their tormentors will not only confront personal demons. It removes predators from their prey and puts those who enable them on notice that a compassionate society won’t tolerate abuse, especially of its young.