Should it be possible to sue the city of New York for sexual abuse by public school teachers that happened decades ago? How about doctors or hospital attendants? Police officers? Welfare workers? Playground attendants?
For nearly a year, the city has tiptoed around that question, but in the coming months, there may be no ducking it. Legislation in Albany would force public officials to answer for the crimes of earlier generations, just as Catholic bishops have.
What began as an effort by legislators to expand judicial accountability for sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has grown to cover people in every walk of life. One bill would temporarily suspend the statute of limitations, and allow people who say they were abused as children to file lawsuits up to age 58 — that is, 40 years after they turned 18.
In states which have debated changing the statue of limitations, is the object really to help the victims, or persecute the Catholic Church? If you are really concerned about victims, wouldn't you want to help all of them, and not just those who had abuse related to the Catholic Church?
Suddenly, lobbyists and advocates for school boards, counties and small towns spoke out.
“Statutes of limitation exist for a reason,” said Bob Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “How can anyone go back 40 years and ascertain what happened? Witnesses, responsible authorities, even the perpetrator himself or herself, may have passed away.”
Suddenly, indeed. So you say that you were abused by Father O'Malley back 40 years ago. Well, he's been dead for 10 years, and the parish housekeeper died even longer ago. Maybe Bob who was also an altar boy could be a witness, but no one has heard from him in years. When the Catholic Church says that lifting the statute of limitations poses problems as to how to get a fair trail for both victim AND accused, are they just making excuses, or is this a valid point? We need to remember that in our legal system you are innocent until proven guilty, and are entitled to a fair trial.
Currently in the state of New York, if you are a child who is abused by a teacher, you have only NINETY DAYS to file a report. How fair is that? Surely, we can come to a number which is fair for both public and religious institutions.
And the New York State School Boards Association said the costs of old misdeeds would be borne by people who had nothing to do with them, and “provide no corresponding protection” to children. The bill ultimately was not voted on last year. It is back again, and no doubt will get fresh life from the continuing stream of revelations about high church officials who covered up abuse.No one denies that the victims deserve compensation. But closing down schools and parishes hurts everyone, as well as denying the poor opportunities for aid which they might have otherwise received.
New York is certainly not the first state to consider such a bill. Colorado debated this several years ago.
But many opponents of the bill testified that because sovereign immunity protects public institutions, the bill unfairly targets Catholic and other nonpublic entities. L. Martin Nussbaum, an attorney with Rothberger, Johnson and Lyons Religious Institution Group, said many people believe "that Catholic institutions have a more severe [sexual abuse] problem than others. They do not."
Testifying on behalf of CCPAC, Mr. Nussbaum cited several well-documented cases involving public school teachers, juvenile detention facilities, foster care providers and correctional facilities employees.
"This data shows that there is a substantial, current problem of childhood sexual abuse in Connecticut governmental settings," he said. "It is a much larger, and much more current problem than the problem Catholic institutions largely resolved by 1992. The Catholic Conference can see no reason why the law of Connecticut should discriminate between childhood sexual abuse claimants based upon whether they were injured in a governmental setting or a Catholic setting," he said.