New York Lawmakers Behind Child Victims Act Say It Will “Transform Trauma into Real Action”

Web ExclusiveAugust 15, 2019
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Part 2 of our conversation with two New York State legislators, Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who helped pass the Child Victims Act. The state law, which went into effect Wednesday, extends the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse and includes a “lookback period,” giving survivors of any age a year to take legal action even if their cases had expired under the old statute of limitations. Hundreds of cases have already been filed. Both Biaggi and Niou are sexual abuse survivors, and they have spoken about the importance of the Child Victims Act in personal terms. “It is a remarkable thing, it is a privilege, to be able to transform trauma into real action that will help … hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the state of New York,” Biaggi says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our discussion about the new law that’s just gone into effect in New York called the Child Victims Act.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to read from today’s New York Times. Theodore E. McCarrick, the prominent Roman Catholic cardinal who was defrocked early this year for sexual abuse, brought one of his victims, James Grein, then 30, to meet Pope John Paul II in 1988. It was a private audience, Mr. Grein recalled as he became one of hundreds of people to begin filing lawsuits on Wednesday under the Child Victims Act.”

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times piece goes on to say, “After Mr. McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark, left the room, Mr. Grein said he knelt before the pope and revealed, in the presence of several Vatican officials, that Mr. McCarrick had been sexually abusing him since childhood.” Grein said, “'I told him I had been abused as a child by this man, and I need you to stop it,' said an emotional Mr. Grein, who is now 61” years old. Grein went on to say, “He put both hands on my head, and told me he would pray for me.” That’s a piece by Sharon Otterman in today’s New York Times.

No other action was taken, his lawsuit states. And again, that lawsuit has now come forward as a result of the new law that’s gone into effect in New York, as we continue our conversation with New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Democratic Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Manhattan. They both spoke publicly about surviving sexual abuse themselves, ahead of casting their votes for the Child Victims Act at the state Capitol in Albany in January. The law went into effect on Wednesday.

As we talk about the significance of this law, first of all, you are young legislators, female legislators. I want to ask you, New York state legislator Biaggi, how it feels to be in the Legislature, to be able to pass legislation like this, that will help so many people. And do you think that part of it — I mean, this is brought by a squad of four of you, if you will, and you are all four women in the New York Legislature.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: It makes me — it is — it makes me feel lots of different emotions. First of all, it is very surreal. And every time I speak about it, as Assemblywoman Niou has mentioned, it brings back and reopens part of the trauma and the memory that I wish I could forget but that stays with me forever. But at the same time, the more that I speak about it, and the more that I’m able to use what has happened to me to help others and to speak about what people can do, the less pain that I feel. It is a remarkable thing, it is a privilege, to be able to transform trauma into real action that will help — we know — will help hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the state of New York.

And, you know, I would be remiss if I didn’t say how grateful I am to Senator Brad Hoylman, the Senate sponsor, as well as Assemblywoman Rosenthal, because the two of them fought very powerful currents of institutions and triumphed.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: And we also have to, of course, mention Marge Markey, who was one of the first sponsors in the Assembly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, you shared your experience, as you mentioned in Part 1 of our interview, of being a survivor of child sexual abuse, when you voted in favor of the Child Victims Act in January.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: I was 13 years old. And it was a teacher. And I can still smell him. I can still smell what he smells like. And I told people in my conference last year, when we were about to speak on the bill, about my experience. But I think, you know, it’s not something that I like to bring up, because it’s something that’s so shameful and so horrible and so traumatic of an experience, to me, to many of the other victims, that it’s really, really hard to bring up. It’s really hard to talk about it, for many, many reasons. … I literally can’t stop shaking. And so, I just wanted to let you guys know that your vote is so important to me and so important to those victims. Thank you so much.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Assemblywoman, that’s you speaking about this bill and your support for it, this act. What kind of response did you receive to your testimony?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: So, one of the hardest things, I think, is that so many folks — I mean, I talked about it with Senator Biaggi, but so many folks are now reaching out and telling us about their stories, and we’ve been hearing so many people have been silenced for so long. And I think that that’s one of the things that is so significant, that just in one day we saw hundreds of people. Just, they were ready to talk. And our laws should have been ready to listen, and they weren’t. And I think that that’s really significant, that we made these changes in a time when, of course, they were long overdue, but before, you know, folks passed away, before, folks couldn’t have a chance to speak up anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain again what people can do right now, now that the Child Victims Act has passed. What is the timeline, no matter when the abuse happened? This is only if you live in New York state?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Or if your perpetrator is in New York state?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: If the act happened in New York state. The perpetrator doesn’t have to live here anymore, but they, you know, can still be held accountable in New York courts.

AMY GOODMAN: And you don’t have to live here.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: And you don’t have to live here anymore. But if this has happened in New York state, then this is something that you can bring to the courts. New York state courts have jurisdiction over what happened to you. And I think that, you know, this —

AMY GOODMAN: And for the next year.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: Yep, for the one-year lookback period, starting yesterday. As of yesterday, we have one year, until August 14th of next year, to actually be able to hold people accountable. It doesn’t matter what age you are.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, her testimony, how she prefaced her vote in favor of the Child Victims Act in January, speaking about her own trauma.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: I am a sexual abuse survivor. And this bill is incredibly important to me. The shame that abuse creates turns oftentimes into silence. And without a system that encourages and protects victims who share their experiences, the trauma manifests into many different forms. For me, that silence lasted for 25 years. And it is almost unthinkable that I could stand here as a New York state senator to speak about something that I thought I would probably take to my grave. … To the survivors and to the advocates, but mainly to the survivors of these heinous acts, the acts of terror that you have endured does not make you less human. You are worthy of a world that respects your body and your being, and at the very least includes legal redress for what you have endured. As a member of this body of the New York state Senate, I am proud to vote aye, Madam President. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, prefacing her vote for this really revolutionary law that has been passed in the Legislature, signed off on, has gone into effect as of yesterday. So, tell us about what it felt like to describe your own experience — both of you did — and what happened in this Legislature, in the both Senate, where you are, and in the House.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: It felt —

AMY GOODMAN: Did you coordinate this?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So, we did not coordinate it, and it felt very liberating, but also very sad. I think that every time that I speak about it, it makes me angry, although less angry each time, because I think that there is an underestimation of how much child sexual abuse affects someone’s life. I know that for the rest of my life that I am on this Earth, this will be something that affects the way that I interact with others, as Assemblywoman Niou has mentioned, my relationships, the way I think and feel about myself. There are issues of self-worth and confidence. And I think if you’re looking at me and where I am right now, or looking at the video, you’re thinking, “How could she possibly be, you know, worried about confidence?” It’s real. It’s a very real thing, and you live with it every single day.

Now, when I spoke about what had happened to me as a child, I had no idea that at the same exact moment, in the Assembly, just down the hall, in a different chamber, that there were three women also speaking about their abuse. The significance of that is not to be, I think, really made small, because I think before I was speaking, if someone said, “Do you feel lonely in this feeling?” I would have said, “No, I don’t. I feel like I have spoken about it. I have my family surrounding me. I have my, at the time fiancé, now husband, supporting me in doing this and also with me on my journey to heal.” But when I learned that they had spoken about it, as well, I felt —

AMY GOODMAN: Assemblywoman Niou.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Assemblywoman Niou, Assemblywoman Cruz, Assemblywoman Bichotte — I felt less alone. There is really less darkness in my life now, because of these other three women who have spoken about it. And the fact that we were all able to come together, thanks to Safe Horizon and Alexis Grenell and all of their work that they’ve done for this PSA, and have really — again, it’s transforming this pain into something that is actionable, makes it less of a burden, although it’s still a burden, but less of a burden, and also allows us to focus on the action-oriented part of it, which is to spread awareness so everybody in the state of New York who is affected by this knows.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the institutional response? Who fought you on this? I mean, as you said, you grew up a Catholic. Clearly, the Catholic Church has to be quaking right now in New York.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Yes. I mean, the institutional response, I think, previously — and there was a fight, I think, even up to bringing this bill to the floor. And I had mentioned this a little bit in the earlier segment, which is that the Catholic Church in New York had spent $2.1 million lobbying against the Child Victims Act — $2.1 million at a time when New Yorkers have a housing need, are food-insecure. Are you kidding me? That is so outrageous.

I will say that when I spoke up, my colleagues in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, were incredibly supportive. Some members shared with me that they also had been abused as children. That was a very unexpected thing that had happened. And I think just me speaking gave them the opportunity, or at least, again, the space, to be able to say, “Oh, that happened to me, too.”

And also, this is what child sexual abuse looks like. It doesn’t have one face. It looks like myself and Assemblywoman Niou and Assemblywoman Cruz and Assemblywoman Bichotte. But it also looks like other individuals. There is not one face of child sexual abuse. And it was important, I think, to make sure that that was very clear, because we want everyone to know what it looks like and what they can do.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you each be suing?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: I will not be.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you make that decision?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: For me — I mean, justice looks different to everybody. And for me, part of my justice was speaking about it and also confronting the person who had done this to me. That was a huge, huge step forward for me. I never thought that that was something I would do. And I did that, in addition to telling my family. And for me, that was one of the most liberating things that has happened to me. And to be perfectly honest, because I faced that incredible demon, that I, again, still deal with every single day, but because I dealt with it in that way, I felt very much freed from that chain of silence, that had really just eaten up so much of my life and had manifested in ways that still I deal with, but anxiety and depression. I suffered from an eating disorder for 15 years and didn’t really understand why or where it was coming from. It didn’t really make sense, until I went to therapy and was able to really understand what had happened. And it’s also one of the reasons I don’t drink alcohol. I mean, there are so many ways that this affects your life. But, for me, being able to face it, and then go through additional therapy, was the justice that I needed. And I’m grateful that I was able to do it in this lifetime.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Assemblywoman?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: My case didn’t happen in New York state. And so, you know, I unfortunately, don’t have the opportunity to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you reaching out to legislators, or are legislators reaching out to you around the country, seeing this as a model for legislation?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: I’ve heard from a couple of folks, especially in Washington state, where I am from. And I think that, you know, it’s — it’s hard, because I think that every state has, you know, its process, but I do think that there’s a lot of things that should change around the country, because we’ve seen how it has changed things in California, and we have seen, you know, that it’s a huge need in New York. But, you know, we have to remember that a lot of people don’t come forward or — and this is such a small percentage of folks who have actually dealt with the same trauma, that are coming forward. And I myself, I hadn’t spoken about it for — you know, I didn’t talk about it for almost 20-plus years.

And, you know, you asked about what it felt like to speak about it on the floor. And, you know, I didn’t know that anybody else was going to speak up. You know, when you push that button to speak, you don’t know what the order is going to be, and you don’t know who’s going to be called on first or second or third or whatever. But at the same time, you know, you’re making a decision to speak up about something that you care about, and you’re making that decision to support a bill and speak on what that means to you.

And when I spoke up, I didn’t think that I would actually have — you know, I didn’t think that I would say what I did. I didn’t think I would have to actually talk about it, relive it in that exact moment. But it was because I had heard so many folks say that, you know, victims can’t remember, you know, and that kind of triggered it in me to like actually talk about what I did remember, you know, because you can’t forget. You know, if I couldn’t remember, if I could forget, I would, but I can’t. And so, that’s something that I think, you know, folks carry with them. And the truth of matter is, you know, the average age for folks to even come forward and talk about it is 52. Fifty-two. Right? And that’s a reality.

And when I stood up and I said what I did, the first reaction I had was, you know, “What is my family going to do now?” Right? Because it was so hard already, the first time around, when I had to talk to my parents about it, when I had to deal with the repercussions of what that felt like and how it felt to my community. And I was so afraid, and my parents were so afraid of talking about it. And that made me feel so much more embarrassed and so much more dirty and broken and shamed. And like, I think that — I think it’s hard, you know, like culturally hard, religiously it’s hard, when, you know, there’s this — like, this stereotype of what, like, a good girl is supposed to be like.

And I think that we feel so alone in those moments, that when my colleagues stood up, when I saw Rodneyse speak up, and then when Catalina spoke up, and then when I found out that Alessandra spoke up — you know, as somebody who is an elected official, as a person of color, as somebody who’s the only Asian-American woman in the entire New York state Legislature, you know, you feel alone a lot. But at that moment was the first time that I felt like I’m glad I told what happened, you know, and I had never once felt like it was like a good thing to have said anything, right? It’s always like somehow you get, you know, stigmatized. Somehow you’re more embarrassed. Somehow somebody will find a way to use it against you, you know? But for the first time, I felt like I’m not embarrassed. I’m not ashamed. And I’m not alone. And I have friends who had to deal with the same thing, felt the same thing and are going through the same thing, and were also brave enough to step up and speak out. And as you can tell, you know, it brought a lot of us together, in a way that I didn’t think that, you know, we could be.

But it’s also — it’s also so important to know that there are so many advocates out there that had told their story over and over and over again, relived this moment over and over and over again, in front of legislators, in front of people that can make that change, and chose not to, year after year after year after year, you know. And their stories are so impactful and should be taken account of.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, your bravery is inspiring and awesome. And we thank you both, not only for telling your stories, but for this law that has been passed, that will enable so many, that will liberate so many. I want to thank you both for being with us, New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi. Thank you. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

To watch Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. Thanks for joining us.

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