Adult victims of childhood sexual abuse now have a chance of justice under a new New York law, the Child Victims Act, that will suspend the statute of limitations to bring up civil lawsuits against abusers. This filing period, which will be in effect for one year, is known as a “look-back window,” but many are calling it the “window of justice.”
The Child Victims Act was signed into law Feb. 14 and the filing period begins Aug. 14. It will resurrect past suits that expired under the statute of limitations, and allow survivors to bring up civil cases until they turn 55. Most survivors of childhood sexual assault used to be cut off from being able to file lawsuits at 23.
Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, who is a survivor and voted for the Child Victims Act said at a news conference that it shows the government cares.
“The passing of this legislation is telling survivors like myself that our stories matter to our government, and that we count in the eyes of the law,” she said.
Critics of this look-back window say it could bring about cases based on flawed evidence and faded memories, but supporters are saying survivors will finally have their chance to hold power to account.
“The Child Victims Act opens the door to the courthouse,” said Michael Polenberg, vice president for government affairs at the Safe Horizon advocacy group, told the New York Times. “The Child Victims Act doesn’t change the way that our justice system works.”
Many have their eyes locked on large institutions fraught with stories of childhood sexual abuse and trauma, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, schools, hospitals and other institutions.
Legal experts are expecting hundreds or even thousands of civil cases will be brought up within the next year under the Child Victims Act, ABC News reports. New York’s move follows moves by other states, like California, who opened a look-back window in 2003, which led to approximately one thousand cases being brought up, according to NPR. In 2006, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy. Minnesota closed its look-back window in 2016, and multiple Catholic diocese have filed for bankruptcy in its wake. New Jersey is set to open a two-year look-back window this year.
Jeff Anderson and Associates is a firm that often represents survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy, and they announced their plan to file over 200 lawsuits in New York upon the opening of the look-back window.
Mike Reck, an attorney at the firm, told ABC News their cases cover every diocese in New York, as well as the archdiocese.
The Child Victims Act will also continue serving justice after next year. Even after this window expires, survivors of childhood sexual abuse will now be able to file civil suits up until they turn 55. The age for criminal suits has also been upped, from 23 to 28.
The Child Victims Act is also important because it acknowledges the psychological reality of trauma. Whereas many victim-blamers of the recent #MeToo movement have questioned why survivors did not report their abusers sooner, evidence proves that most survivors do not report sexual assault right away for various reasons, including fear of retaliation, fear of reliving the events in court, shame and even denial. With children, the confusion may even intensify, as 93% of perpetrators are known to the victim, and 34% are family members, according to RAINN. Furthermore about 60% of childhood sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by someone the family trusts, according to Darkness to Light.
This week, a New York Times article profiled a man, Charlie d’Estries, who said a Catholic priest abused him 50 years ago. D’Estries is now 64, and has a chance at justice under the Child Victims Act.
“The big piece is about being able to get it out,” he told the Times. “Let’s tell the story because it’s worth telling.”