Sex Abuse Bill to Include Public Institutions, Too

By Paul Vitello (NY Times)
June 4, 2009

Addressing complaints from Roman Catholic officials and others, the state assemblywoman sponsoring a bill to temporarily lift the statute of limitations on lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of children said on Wednesday that she would amend her proposal to apply to public as well as private entities.

The change would give people who say they were abused in public schools, for example, the same opportunities to sue as those claiming abuse in religious or private schools.

The assemblywoman, Margaret M. Markey, a Queens Democrat, said fellow lawmakers supporting the bill, known as the Child Victim Act, had told her that their constituents' most persistent reservations about it were based "on the idea that this was somehow unfair."

"I think the vigorous debate we've had this year has made this a better bill," she said in a statement.

The move seemed to surprise both advocates and opponents of the legislation, which has been the focus of a lobbying battle for months pitting advocates for protection against sex abuse of children, and their lawyers, against a coalition of religious organizations facing huge potential civil liabilities and some civil rights lawyers chary of compromising statutes of limitations.

Spokesmen for the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, which have sent priests, youth groups and official delegates to Albany repeatedly in recent months to argue against Ms. Markey's bill, said they had not seen the proposed amendment nor had an inkling it was coming.

Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the state's Catholic prelates, echoed reaction from many on both sides, saying, "This is not what we expected; this is something new."

Ms. Markey has championed the legislation for the past three sessions, but this is the first time it has stood a chance of passing.

While the bill itself did not create the inequity, it gave opponents a strong argument because it did not address a built-in protection that public agencies enjoy. The protection, which many states provide under the British common law tradition of "crown immunity," limits the liability of public agencies by requiring anyone alleging harm to file notice of claim within 90 days.

Thus, a child abused by a teacher in a public school would have 90 days after turning 18 to file a claim. By contrast, under current law, a victim of abuse at a private or religious school can file a civil claim within five years after turning 18.

The Child Victim Act would extend that time limit to 10 years. More importantly, it would suspend the statute of limitations altogether for one year. A man of 50 who claimed he was sexually abused at age 10, for instance, would be able to file a civil suit during the one-year window.

But until Ms. Markey recast her bill on Wednesday, it did not apply to public institutions.

A competing bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez of Brooklyn and supported by Catholic officials, includes both the longer time limit for filing suit (to age 28) and a provision giving the same rights to victims in public settings, abolishing the 90-day rule where sex abuse is alleged. But it omits the one-year window for both classes of victims.

Advocates for sex abuse victims applauded the change in Ms. Markey's bill. Although he had not seen the new language, Bob Kristan, spokesman for the New York Coalition to Protect Children, said the revision "sounds like it will help finding more predators, provide justice for more victims, and protect more children — and so we support it."

Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in New York City schools, said the union "supports any reasonable measures that seek to protect children, so we are not opposed to this modification."

Fresh opposition to the bill, however, may yet emerge. On Wednesday, few municipal officials had heard of the new version. But Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, which represents about 700 superintendents, said that his group would now oppose the bill. The superintendents had previously taken no position on it.

"Statutes of limitations exist for a reason," Mr. Lowry said. "We would have a concern about litigation arising that would be hard to respond to because witnesses could have disappeared or even died in years past."

Religious institutions opposing the Child Victim Act, which is sponsored in the Senate by Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan, have argued that they would be bankrupted by a deluge of new lawsuits, and that the bill is inherently discriminatory.

When he introduced his competing measure, Assemblyman Lopez said he was motivated partly by a sense of its arbitrary unfairness — "where you can only get justice if you are abused in this building, but if you got hurt across the street, too bad."

Mr. Lopez said on Wednesday that although he had not seen the revised version of the Markey bill, he was pleased it now included equity for sex abuse victims in public institutions.

But he will not drop his own bill, he said. "I'm still opposed to any legislation that lets you sue somebody for something that happened 40 years ago," he said. "That's crazy."

David W. Chen and Javier C. Hernandez contributed reporting.