Child Sex Abuse Bill Poised for Vote Amid Albany Chaos

By Rebecca Dube

Published June 10, 2009, issue of June 19, 2009.
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Last summer, New York State Assemblywoman Marge Markey had lunch with Delaware State Senator Karen Peterson. On the menu: a strategy session on how Markey could successfully achieve passage of a bill that would make it easier for sexual abuse survivors to sue their molesters and the institutions that employed them.

In 2007, Peterson got the Delaware legislature to pass a measure repealing the statute of limitations for all child sexual abuse cases, and creating a two-year window during which past victims who had already exceeded the old statute of limitations could file civil lawsuits.

Two years and about 100 lawsuits later, Delaware’s “window” is set to close on July 10. Meanwhile, Markey’s proposal to extend the statute of limitations in New York and create a one-year window for previously time-barred lawsuits is closer than ever before to winning passage — provided it can overcome opposition by religious groups and political chaos in the state Senate.

But the advice Markey got at that lunch has not always been easy to follow, and her bill, scheduled for a vote in the Assembly on June 16, has not enjoyed the direct path to success that Peterson found in Delaware.

Peterson told Markey, a Democrat from Queens, to rely on the persuasive power of

grass-roots activists and to line up as many endorsements as possible. She has done both. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a group of primarily Catholic abuse victims, and Survivors for Justice, a group of Jewish survivors of child sexual abuse, have been lobbying Albany lawmakers hard.

“You can’t fight the money the church has,” Peterson said in a conversation with the Forward, noting that Delaware is a heavily Catholic state. “All we had on our side was we knew we were right, and we had this incredible group of people that hung with us. That made it happen.”

Survivors for Justice began June 9 running a series of eight radio commercials in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, warning that “there is an epidemic of unreported sexual abuse in the frum community,” and urging passage of the Markey bill. Television commercials will follow. The legislation has become a bitter battleground for Jewish abuse survivors who are outraged that some Orthodox Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah, have joined the Catholic Church in opposing the bill.

Peterson had one more important word of advice for Markey: “Our mantra was, no amendments.”

That bit of counsel has fallen by the wayside. Markey made two significant changes to her bill in order to get it the promise of a vote by the full Assembly. She added language that explicitly includes public institutions in the one-year window, addressing criticism that the bill unfairly targeted religious groups. And she put an age limit — 53 — on who could sue over past abuse, in order to dispel complaints about the possibility of 80-year-old abuse claims prompting lawsuits.

These changes were driven by pragmatism. The age limit particularly upset sexual abuse survivors, and Markey was unhappy about it, as well, spokesman Mike Armstrong said. But he said, “This was something that [will make] it possible to get a majority voting for the bill.”

The other amendment was also a political tradeoff. The Catholic Church has argued that the bill unfairly targets religious institutions while letting public schools off the hook. Other lawmakers told Markey that the issue was a deal breaker.

“We’ve gotten pledges of support now from people who were on the fence,” Armstrong said.

But that support comes with a political risk. Now, Markey and supporters of the bill may have to defend against public employees’ unions and other organizations that see the measure as a threat. The United Federation of Teachers, a powerful union, has said it will not oppose the bill. But a group representing about 700 school superintendents in New York has gone on record against it.

The Delaware bill did include public institutions, Peterson said, but she didn’t know of any civil sex-abuse lawsuits against public schools. In California, a 2003 lawsuit window approved by the state legislature prompted about 1,000 civil suits, with only a handful targeting public institutions. (The California Supreme Court later ruled that the window law did not apply to public schools, but no one knew that at the time the lawsuits were being filed.)

The public-private debate can cut both ways. In Colorado, state lawmaker Gwyn Green introduced a bill for several years running that would have created a window for long-ago sex abuse claims. When the bill included only private institutions, the church attacked it as anti-Catholic. When she expanded it to include public institutions, it was defeated by opposition from public employees’ unions. Green who is 70, recently announced her retirement from the state House and named the failure of that statute of limitations bill as her one main regret.

In New York, at least, Markey’s amendments have not quelled opposition from the Catholic Church and from some Orthodox Jewish groups. The bill is still “terrible public policy,” said Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference: “Statutes of limitation exist in law for a good reason, and it is impossible to defend decades-old claims; [and] the bill could seriously impact the ability of the Catholic Church and other not-for-profits to provide health care, social services and education programs.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel, agreed: “Our objection was and remains the window provision [temporarily] lifting the statute of limitations.”

The wild card in the debate over Markey’s bill is the New York Senate, which as of the Forward’s press time had entered a state of dysfunction unusual even for Albany. Democrats were struggling to regain control of the Senate after Republicans joined forces with two Democratic members to oust the Senate majority leader in a series of surprise parliamentary maneuvers. Which side will end up controlling the Senate, when the senators will get back to the business of actually legislating, and what they will do with the child sex abuse bill is anyone’s guess.

For her part, Peterson did confront some last-minute surprises when her bill was debated in the Delaware Senate. She remembers lining up her support but worrying about two senators who she thought might oppose the bill. When one of them, known for his eloquent argumentativeness, stood to speak, she said, “I thought, oh, okay, here we go.”

Instead of attacking on the measure, though, the senator disclosed that he had been molested as a child, and said he thought that passing the bill would be the best thing they could do for the state.

“The place went absolutely silent,” Peterson recalled. Her bill passed unanimously after that.

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com


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