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Let’s Reform Sex Abuse Laws To Offer Justice — Not Protect Predators

No matter what happens at the Oscars, the very best film of 2015 was “Spotlight,” the improbable drama of how a team of newspaper reporters painstakingly revealed an institutional cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The film’s excellence lay not only in its superb acting and storytelling, but in the way it humanized without sensationalizing the lasting pain of child abuse.

Who can forget the scene of a tough Bostonian recounting how a priest molested him when he was a vulnerable youngster? His confusion, embarrassment and shame were laid bare on the screen before us, allowing us to viscerally understand how it can take years for a young victim to comprehend what happened and to muster the courage to challenge a figure of religious authority.

That image needs to remain in our sights, alongside the images of the young men the Forward wrote about in 2012 and 2013 who bravely stepped up to reveal the abuse they suffered at the hands of esteemed rabbis at Yeshiva University High School for Boys.

And it should remain alongside the stunning essay by Sara Kabakov published in this week’s Forward, where she for the first time detailed how she was repeatedly molested in her home by the former rabbi and spiritual guru Marc Gafni when she was only a teenager and he was a rabbinical student.

The common thread running through all these searing stories is not only the violence done by child predators cloaked in religious garb. It is the infuriating fact that, because of state law, justice was beyond victims’ reach.

Only years after the investigative team of The Boston Globe blew open the scandal in the Catholic Church did the state of Massachusetts reform its restrictive statute of limitations (SOL) law. This law places a time limit on when sexual abuse victims can bring civil and criminal charges against their perpetrators or the institutions that hide them.

In New York state, the victims are still waiting for reform.

The state is home to one of the most restrictive SOLs in the country, ranking right down there with Michigan, Mississippi and Alabama as states with laws that advocates say are the worst for survivors and the best for predators.

Year after year, Margaret Markey, a dedicated lawmaker from Queens, has introduced the Child Victims Act, which in its current formulation seeks to do away with the SOL altogether, and to allow a one-year window for older civil suits. Her bill, in various versions, has repeatedly received overwhelming approval in the state House but gets nowhere in the Senate — where only a single hearing has been held to debate its merits in public. The interim Senate president, John Flanagan, declined to comment, though he has opposed the reforms in the past. The governor is keeping mum.

Meantime, victims are still waiting.

Why do these restrictions exist at all? The most reasonable defense has to do with the passage of time. Over time, memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, witnesses die, stories change — and as a result, innocent people can be falsely accused. Our justice system is predicated on the belief that sometimes the bad guys can get away with it so that the good guys aren’t wrongly incriminated.

But experience shows that false accusations are rare. Frivolous claims are rare. When the state of California opened the first-ever window in 2003 and allowed alleged victims to file civil claims about events that happened years ago, about 1,000 people came forward, and the state was not overrun with false accusations.

Are legions of the falsely accused roaming the halls in Albany to defend their rights? Is that why Markey’s bill is languishing? Of course not. In New York and across the country, the loudest and most powerful institution opposing the extension or elimination of SOLs is the Catholic Church. In New York, Agudath Israel of America, representing many of the state’s large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews, has pursued the unacceptable role of Church sidekick.

These institutions are concerned about their bottom lines — after that one-year window in California, for instance, the Church paid $1.2 billion in settlements — and reforms should not be written in such a way as to benefit plaintiffs’ attorneys above all. But allowing no recourse for historic claims ignores the lived reality of the victims. The vast majority of victims of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement (61% of females and 84% of males) are under 18. With the help of supportive family and communities, many of these victims do recover.

But according to Marci Hamilton, professor of law at the Cardozo School at Yeshiva University, about one-third will suffer from PTSD and, as we acknowledge in other aspects of our society — notably among military veterans — the consequences of traumatic stress may take years and even decades to manifest. As Kabakov describes in heartbreaking detail, even if children can find the language to express what has happened to them, few adults are willing to listen.

So to place limits, as New York does (in most cases, you must file a criminal claim before you are 23 years old), slams the door shut for those victims, and grants legal immunity to predators. It allows predators to hide. That point must be emphasized again and again.

In fact, the state of Georgia — which not too long ago ranked close to New York in its resistance to reform — named its new law, passed in July 2015, the Hidden Predator Act. The law provides a 30-year extension to the SOL and creates a two-year window during which victims of past abuse can file civil claims against their alleged abuser, even if the statute of limitations has expired.

The effect has been immediate. Matthew Stanley, a former high school quarterback, filed a lawsuit claiming that Jim Collins, now a lobbyist at the Georgia statehouse, abused him hundreds of times when Collins was a youth pastor. “Jim used his position of authority in my local church to perpetrate his abuse for most of my adolescent years,” Stanley, now 31, said at a news conference last November. Collins deserves his day in court, but no longer can he hide.

New York lawmakers must keep in their sights Stanley’s image, and Kabakov’s, and the images of countless other brave men and women, and then do the right thing for victims, and for justice.

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