Sexual-abuse survivors who traveled to Albany, N.Y., with high hopes this past spring got a tough lesson in political reality. The state Assembly’s regular session ended on June 22 without any action on a bill that would make it easier for sex-abuse victims to sue their molesters and the institutions that employed them.
“People are playing politics with innocent kids’ lives. I don’t even know what to think anymore,” said Joe Diangelo, a member of Survivors for Justice, a group that formed last year to support Jewish survivors of child sexual abuse. Diangelo was one of several Jewish activists who joined Catholic abuse survivors lobbying New York State legislators this year, only to see their efforts countered by a strong push against the bill from the Catholic Conference and a few ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations.
“It’s sad, but by no means are we going to stop,” Diangelo said as he protested outside the office of Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat who played the most visible role in blocking the sex-abuse bill in the Assembly.
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, a Queens Democrat, plans to reintroduce the measure when the legislature reconvenes in January 2010. Markey’s bill would extend the statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases of sexual abuse; more controversially, her bill also would create a one-year “window” during which older victims of childhood sexual abuse could sue their molesters and sue any institutions that covered up or enabled the abuse, such as schools, religious institutions or community organizations. Similar “window” legislation in California led to about 1,000 lawsuits, most of them against the Catholic Church.
Markey and her supporters argue that the one-year window is necessary to expose sexual predators who may still be molesting children today. But opponents of the bill — including the Catholic Church, Agudath Israel of America (an ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization) and the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (an influential Satmar community group) — argue that defending against decades-old claims of abuse would prove impossible and too expensive for religious and community groups that would be targeted by lawsuits. They support the idea of a longer statute of limitations going forward, but oppose the retrospective window for lawsuits.
Markey entered this legislative session with high hopes for what she named the Child Victims Act. It had been approved in the Assembly by wide margins for the past three years in a row, only to die in the Republican-controlled Senate. After the 2008 election put Democrats in the majority in the Senate, chances for the Markey bill seemed better than ever. And the current chaos in the Senate was not yet a factor.
Ironically, the likelihood of a vote in the Senate may have made it harder for the bill to gain momentum. Knowing that the Assembly vote on the bill would have real consequences this year, the Catholic Conference stepped up its lobbying efforts against it, and groups such as Agudath Israel went public with their opposition.
“It was able to sail through earlier because everyone knew that Bruno [former Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, who retired last year] would block it,” said Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law professor Marci Hamilton, who supported the Markey bill. “They could take a public vote on it, knowing there would be no backlash. This year, the Catholic Conference started to play hardball early on.”
The opposition forced Markey to make some changes: She reworded the bill to include public institutions as well as private ones, and she put a 53-year-old age limit on who could sue over past sexual abuse. With those changes, Markey said she was confident she had enough votes to pass the bill. As late as the week of June 15, she was predicting a vote in the full Assembly within a few days.
Supporters of the Markey bill point to Lopez as the architect of the bill’s downfall. A vociferous opponent of the one-year window legislation, Lopez sponsored a competing bill that would extend the statute of limitations going forward but would not allow lawsuits in old cases. Those lobbying for Markey’s bill heard that Lopez was planning to introduce what’s called a “hostile amendment” on the Assembly floor, basically replacing the Markey bill with his own. With votes from Republicans as well as from Democrats who were wavering on the Markey bill, that tactic might have succeeded. And the prospect of an ugly floor battle was enough to make Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wary of bringing the bill to a vote in the busy waning days of the session.
Lopez told the Forward he has no intention of introducing a hostile amendment. Instead, Lopez said, he wants to convene a task force of religious leaders, abuse victims, legal experts and others to hammer out a compromise between his proposal and the Markey bill.
Given the rancor toward Lopez that exists among sexual-abuse survivors who lobbied for the Markey bill, such a meeting may be a tough sell. For his part, Lopez dismissed the daily demonstrations that have been occurring outside his district office in Brooklyn.
“That’s one or two people who want to sue, who just want to get money,” Lopez said. “That’s not, to me, a protest.”
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