Press For Child Abuse ‘LookBack’ Action

James J. Mackin
St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church in Sag Harbor | Independent/James J. Mackin

Tens of thousands of child abusers in New York State are waiting for Albany lawmakers to decide if they will pass legislation enabling victims to reopen cases currently timed out by the statute of limitations.

State legislators are being urged to include funding for so-called “look back” legislation that will allow prosecutors to reopen criminal cases and victims to file civil suits against abusers. The current statute of limitation laws prevent such action. In some cases, victims have as little as one year to take action. Under current law, the statute of limitations for felony sexual abuse crimes runs five years and begins at age 18.

Al Ryan, a Sag Harbor man who was a victim of sexual abuse as a seven-year-old, is one example of a person who never filed charges but may now. Because family members were involved, he was reluctant to come forward in the past. No body knows how many unreported cases may still be out there.

Citizens groups are urging the public to get involved by lobbying Albany representatives opposed to the Child Victims Act, which would suspend the statutes now in place for one year if passed.

The State Assembly has approved the measure, but similar bills have stalled many times in the past in the State Senate, with a block of GOP senators opposing them.

The act includes a look back window that would allow old cases of child abuse to be reopened for a one-year period. However, even its proponents acknowledge the bill isn’t going to reach Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk any time soon. If the upcoming budget contains funding for the bill, the Childs Victims Act will at least have a chance to become law, but time is running short.

“We should know in a couple of days,” said Assemblyman Fred Thiele. If the funding isn’t included, the bill will have to wait until next year and be resubmitted.

“I have supported the act, including the look back provision,” Thiele said Saturday. “There is legitimate reason for statutes of limitations, but in balancing all the equities, justice demands a look back in these cases, regardless of who the defendant is. Victims deserve a remedy and closure.”

“This legislation is fundamental to ensuring that adults who were victims of sexual abuse are able to seek the justice they deserve,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“Similarly, it will help authorities identify predators and protect other children from the lifelong toxic effects associated with childhood sexual abuse.”

Bill sponsors said victims of childhood sexual abuse in some instances were reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons. Connie Neal, Executive Director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said, “For far too long, abusers have been given cover under the current laws. This allows victims to pursue action if and when they are ready to do so.”

It should be noted the Child Victim Act is not aimed solely at rogue priests but all child abusers. The look back can be triggered against anyone accused of child abuse who escaped prosecution because of a legal time restriction.

St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church in Sag Harbor. (Cover) A statue of St. Andrew in front of the church; (this page and previous) the church and the rectory. | Independent/James J. Mackin

Archbishop Timothy Dolan made a surprise visit to Albany on March 19, urging Cuomo and state lawmakers to reject the look back legislation. Cuomo has supported the look back in the provision but has also worked closely with Dolan in the past, on many other issues.

“The governor put it in his budget package. It remains to be seen how much effort he will put into including it in the final budget plan,” Thiele said.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre, like several other dioceses, has established an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program that allows victims of pedophile priests to file for compensation. The diocese funds the IRCP, but an independent panel awards the compensation.

Dolan expressed concern that if passed, the law would lead to multiple suits against the church and priests accused of being sexual predators.

As reported in last week’s Independent, the church has paid about $4 billion to stifle criminal prosecution of pedophile priests by reaching financial settlements with abuse victims. Although Archbishop Dolan didn’t say as much, the church has been closing schools because it can no longer finance them and likely is worried the look back will trigger an even deeper financial crisis.

The Archbishop said, “The only organization targeted [by the look back] is the Catholic church.”

The church’s opposition to reopening the prosecution window hits especially hard on Long Island. A Suffolk County Grand Jury investigation in 2002-03 revealed a sustained policy of ignoring victims when possible, or settling civilly with them in lieu of filing criminal charges. The Diocese of Rockville Centre oftentimes allowed predator priests to continue working, occasionally even promoting them.

The Grand Jury report concluded church officials made a conscious and far-reaching effort to cover up sexual abuse incidents and that many more went unreported because of the stigma attached.

On the East End, an investigation by The Independent in 2009 revealed accused, suspected, or admitted pedophile priests served in East Hampton, Amagansett, Cutchogue, Mattituck, Sag Harbor, Water Mill, Riverhead, Southold, and Manorville.

State Senator Ken LaValle, a Republican who often votes in tandem with Thiele, could not be reached for comment.

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