Child Victims Act Passes NY Legislature, Agudah Still Opposed

This past Monday, the New York State Senate voted unanimously to pass the Child Victims Act, and the assembly voted 130-3. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign it into law within the coming days. The votes themselves were powerful and emotional to experience. Many senators rose to speak about why they support the legislation, and one senator and several assembly members talked about their own personal experiences as survivors of sexual abuse.

Senator Alessandra Biaggi spoke about being sexually abused when she was younger, and described how her “silence lasted for over 25 years.” Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou broke down in tears as she described in vivid detail being abused by a teacher at the age of 13. “I can still smell him,” she said. Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte revealed that she was abused by a pastor when she was 10 years old, and Assembly member Catalina Cruz disclosed being abused by a family member.

When the results in each house were announced, everyone in the chambers erupted into applause. Many of the survivors who fought for the Child Victims Act were in attendance, and there were many teary eyes as they embraced each other, overcome by the emotions if finally seeing New York State almost unanimously acknowledge their suffering and finally bring them an opportunity for justice.

The Child Victims Act includes the following provisions:

1) Raises the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse to age 25 for misdemeanors, and age 28 for felonies.

2) Raises the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse to age 55.

3) Eliminates the 90 day notice of claim requirement for civil actions related to child sexual abuse against public institutions.

4) Opens a one-year lookback window, effective 6 months after the bill is signed into law, during which any cases previously barred by the statute of limitations could be brought to civil court.

While the Catholic Church had retracted its opposition to the Child Victims Act by the time it went to the floor for a vote, Agudath Israel had not. In a statement released shortly following the passage of the bill in the senate and assembly, Agudath Israel released a statement condemning the lookback window for its potentially devastating effects on liable institutions. The statement also included a commitment by Agudath Israel to fighting the “terrible scourge” of abuse going forward. It’s worth noting that despite this statement, Agudath Israel’s official policy is still to require rabbinic permission before sexual abuse is reported to police.

While there undoubtedly may be parties who are inconvenienced by any school or institutional closures that result from lawsuits allowed under the Child Victims Act retroactive window, our primary concern must always be for the survivors of sexual abuse who were abused because of the negligence or intentional malice of these institutions. Those survivors haven’t forgotten what was done to them. The pain hasn’t faded. They not only live with the violation of their bodies and souls every day, they also live with the betrayal they experienced at the hands of people, institutions, and community leaders in whom they had placed their trust. 

That harm doesn’t go away, and neither does the liability to make reparations. In the same way institutions, despite changes in leadership or location, stand on their legacies and reputations of previous administrations for the purposes of fundraising or promotion, they must also accept responsibility for the actions of previous administrations when those actions so fundamentally damaged other people. In the same way institutional debts and bills aren’t wiped clean when administrations change, neither are institutional liabilities for enabling and covering up sexual abuse. 

These institutions owe a debt that must be paid to the parties who were made to suffer by that institution’s actions. Abuse is a particularly insidious crime in the way it not only affects individuals, but their families and communities. Not only do the victims suffer, but so do their families, as the pain of the abuse, the aftermath, the backlash, and the community ostracism radiates outward. Generations afterward feel it as parents who were abused and still suffering pass the trauma on to their children who have to witness the pain of their parents. Communities feel the pain when they are split apart in the wake of a report to authorities that pits rabbis and community leaders against survivors and their friends and families. And on the other side, the families of the abusers are also harmed by the actions of the abuser. 

And yet, the suffering of the victim demands justice, because a crime was committed, a child was violated, and for that there’s a price that neither time nor outside considerations can mitigate. So the families of the abuser suffer along with them as their loved one is charged, imprisoned, and registered as a sex offender. Constituents of institutions suffer when their institutions are forced to downsize or close. Ultimately, however, the responsibility for all of that harm, both the direct harm to the victims and the collateral damage caused to all of the otherwise innocent bystanders, lies squarely with the abusers and the people who enabled and covered up for them. 

Survivors are owed these reparations the same way the power company is owed its fees for electricity, and the water company is owed its fees for running water. Even more so because one has no moral obligation to have power or running water, but one does have a moral obligation to protect children from sexual abuse, and immediately report the abuser to authorities if, God forbid, someone does abuse a child. 

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