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Survivors of childhood sexual abuse want more time to file lawsuits

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their allies celebrated the one-year anniversary of passage of the Child Victims Act in New York, but they say they want the law updated to allow some adult victims more time to file lawsuits.

The law, approved in late January 2019, allows survivors to file criminal charges against their alleged abusers until they reach the age of 28. They can pursue civil lawsuits until the age of 55.

But the new rules left out thousands of older adults who experienced sexual abuse when they were children. So a one-year lookback window was created, from mid-August 2019 until mid-August 2020 to allow them to have their day in court as well. 

Michael Polenberg with the New York City-based Safe Horizons, a victims services agency, said halfway through that window, 1,400 lawsuits have already been filed. He said it’s created a “path to justice” for survivors. 

“It’s so important that survivors are able to reclaim this power and reclaim the ability to seek justice in our courts,” Polenberg said.

But he believes there are still more victims out there who are coming to terms with what happened to them and may need more time to take action. 

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal is the sponsor of a bill to extend the one-year window for a second year. 

“A lot of people need more time,” Rosenthal said. “Some people are just starting to come to grips with the abuse that happened to them, and they’re not ready.” 

She said others are having trouble finding attorneys because their abuser was a family member, and not a major institution like the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts. 

Brian Toale was 63 when he first went public with the accusation that his high school club adviser abused him when he was 16. He said it took him 20 years of therapy and other recovery work to find the courage to do it.

“And learning, finally, that the shame that had really messed my life up pretty bad wasn’t mine,” said Toale. “This was a symbolic handing the shame back.”

He said that after he came forward, a high school friend who is a year younger said he had also been abused by the same teacher one year later. The friend said Toale’s bravery inspired him to also come forward. Both have filed lawsuits.

The bill to extend the window for a second year also has a majority party sponsor in the state Senate, Brad Hoylman. Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Democrats are considering the bill.

“We’re certainly going to discuss extending that period,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We want people to have justice.”

One former opponent of the Child Victims Act, the Catholic Church, said it’s not taking a position on the bill to extend the window. The church dropped its opposition to the Child Victims Act early in 2019, which helped pave the way for its passage.

Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said the church urges all survivors to come forward “in whatever way they feel safe,” and they will be offered help. And he said the sooner they can act, the better.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.