Family Life

Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse

Summary

The Catholic Church in the United States has zero tolerance for sexual abuse of children, and the Bishops of New York State stand in unanimous and unwavering support of comprehensive public policies to prevent sexual abuse, punish offenders effectively and fairly, and ensure justice for survivors. Sexual abuse is a human tragedy, a major social problem, a serious crime and an egregious sin. We as Catholics and members of the broader community share a moral obligation to expose and eradicate this evil wherever it exists.

Conference Position

The New York State Catholic Conference supports comprehensive legislation to protect children from sexual abuse in all areas of society

Rationale

To prevent sexual abuse, the New York State Catholic Conference supports mandatory background checks and specialized training for individuals working with children, and mandatory reporting by clergy, teachers, counselors and health care workers who encounter an abused child. For our own part, the Dioceses of New York require clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children to undergo background checks and training, in the belief that education, vigilance and the creation of safe places are the key to prevention. The Bishops also support legislation to prospectively extend the criminal and civil statute of limitations so that crimes against children can be punished when those children become adults and so that survivors have meaningful recourse through our civil courts.

New York State legislators have focused on the crime of sexual abuse for several years and taken significant steps we support.  The criminal statute of limitations on charges of rape or felony sexual abuse of a child has been eliminated. These crimes are now treated with the same gravity as murder. In addition, victims now have the right to file civil lawsuits alleging abuse after any related criminal allegation has been disposed of or up until their 23rd birthday.

Currently under consideration in the state Legislature is a bill that would further extend the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse lawsuits another five years to the 28th birthday.  The Catholic Conference supports this bill, which is sponsored in the Assembly by Michael Cusick and in the Senate by Andrew Lanza and which now has the support of 18 co-sponsors.

A key virtue of the Cusick/Lanza legislation is that it treats victims and institutions equally. Another bill in the Legislature, sponsored by Assembly Member Margaret Markey and Sen. Brad Hoylman, proposes to retroactively eliminate the civil statute of limitations for one year, so that lawsuits from any time in the past could be brought, even if the alleged perpetrator is dead. This bill also would apply to private institutions like the Catholic Church, summer camps, youth groups and not-for-profits. It would exempt public entities like public schools.[1] Tragically, the crime of sexual abuse knows no such boundaries.

The specter of a constitutionally suspect retroactive change in the law that is only selectively applied has made the bill politically controversial and difficult to pass. Many New York legislators believe that justice requires that any person who suffers abuse should have equal access to the courts, regardless of where the abuse occurred. If our goal as a just society is to eradicate sexual abuse of children, then punishing sexual abuse in only one sector of society is as unavailing and unjust as seeking to prevent sexual abuse in only one sector of society.

The Markey proposal did not always take this approach. A previous bill treated public and private institutions equally (by including the Notice of Claim provisions), but Assembly Member Markey abandoned that approach in the face of political opposition from public schools and municipal entities, and now seeks to target private institutions and individuals only.

The Catholic Conference embraces the bills’ shared goals – greater protection of children and justice for survivors – but believes the Cusick/Lanza approach is fairer and more effective. The Bishops of New York State are committed to preventing sexual abuse everywhere it might occur by punishing offenders equally, whomever they are and wherever they are found, and by equipping all social institutions with equal and effective tools to prevent such abuse.

 

[1] The retroactive statute of limitations “window” contained in the Markey/Hoylman bill is an amendment to the state law known as the Civil Practice Laws and Rules (CPLR). New York State law provides greater legal protections to municipal and public entities than it does to private entities and individuals.  These special protections are known as Notice of Claim. For the Markey/Hoylman bill to apply equally to public and private entities, the bill would need to amend not only the CPLR but also the General Municipal Law, the Education Law and the Court of Claims Act, as the Cusick/Lanza bill does.


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