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Child Victims Act: Hundreds File Suits as New York Extends Statute of Limitations on Sex Abuse Cases

StoryAugust 15, 2019
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Hundreds of child sex abuse victims filed lawsuits in New York on Wednesday under the Child Victims Act, a new state law that allows survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the state to bring their perpetrators to court who previously were barred due to statutes of limitations. Lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, a number of schools and hospitals and the estate of Jeffrey Epstein. The Child Victims Act was signed into law in February. It allows prosecutors to bring criminal charges against alleged abusers until the accuser turns 28. Accusers can file a civil lawsuit until they reach the age of 55. In addition, the “lookback window” will allow accusers of any age to bring charges against their alleged perpetrators — no matter how long ago the abuse occurred — for a period of one year starting Wednesday. We speak with two New York legislators that spearheaded the new law, state Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. They are both survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hundreds of child sex abuse victims filed lawsuits in New York on Wednesday. Under a new state law, the Child Victims Act, survivors of childhood sexual abuse in New York, who previously could not bring their perpetrators to court due to statutes of limitations, will now be able to do so for the next year. Lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, a number of schools and hospitals, as well as the estate of Jeffrey Epstein.

AMY GOODMAN: The Child Victims Act was signed into law in February. This is part of a PSA released by Safe Horizon on the Child Victims Act. It features Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz. It begins with New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who joins us after this clip. All four survivors of child sexual abuse.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: I thought I was going to die without ever having spoken about the abuse that happened to me.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: When you’ve been sexually abused as a child, it can take years, or even decades, to process what happened.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: That’s why we changed the law and passed the Child Victims Act.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: The Child Victims Act means that survivors have more time to bring our abusers —

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RODNEYSE BICHOTTE: — and the institutions that may have protected them —

ASSEMBLYMEMBER CATALINA CRUZ: — to justice in the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined by two of the lawmakers in that video: New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and Democratic Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, represents Manhattan. Both women spoke publicly about surviving child sexual abuse while explaining their vote in favor of the Child Victims Act at the state Capitol in Albany in January.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Thank you for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Alessandra Biaggi, talk about what drove you to push for this law, your own experience, and what you hope happens with this now. I mean, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed since yesterday.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: I mean, that fact alone is just remarkable and shows you what is possible when you actually do fight for the things that you know are right, and what the law can do. And so, this law is something I campaigned on. It’s something that is personal to me. I am a child sexual abuse survivor. I spoke very briefly about it in my campaign video, but I had not really spoken out as publicly as I did when I stood up on the floor of the New York state Senate in support of the bill.

One of the most important reasons why I spoke up about it is because silence and shame are surrounded by abuse. And the trauma that it inflicts upon individuals, and the loneliness and the darkness that can really encapture your entire being if you stay silent, was something that I was done with. I am 33 years old today. I was 31 years old when I spoke out against what had happened to me. And I really did think I was going to go to my grave with this inside of me. And something happened in my life that really just propelled me to speak about it. From that point forward, I really have not only felt liberated, but felt like one of the things I could do was use my voice so that other people who had experienced this could also understand that they, too, could speak out against it, if they so choose.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, can you talk about your own investment, your own interest in having this passed?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: I think that it’s a very convoluted answer, but I definitely feel like because of the history of not just the seat that I sit in, but then also the fact that, you know, I had to hear, year after year, the bill not passing. You know, this is my third term. And we passed it my second year, but with a lot of different language. And I think that in conference was the first time that I had spoken about my own experience to any of my colleagues, because, you know, we were hearing a lot of conversation about whether or not it was an attack on institutions, whether or not people were going to remember what happened to them. And I told them, you know, this is something that I will never forget, that I live with day to day, and that it still affects my life over and over again, every single time that I touch on it. And that goes through relationships. That goes through my relationships with friends, family, partners, etc., right? And I think that people don’t realize the long-term effects and the impacts that it has on people. And people don’t realize that with traumatic incidents like these, you know, I think that memory is something that is imprinted into you. And I think that that’s part of why I spoke up.

AMY GOODMAN: So, state Senator Biaggi, tell us what this law does.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So, the Child Victims Act extends the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse in civil cases to the age of 55 and in criminal cases to the age of 28. Probably one of the most significant parts of this bill is what was triggered and began yesterday, August 14th, 2019, which will extend until August 14th, 2020, which is the lookback period of one year for individuals who were children, who were time-barred by the statute of limitations in New York, who could not bring cases against any institution or individual because the statute of limitations had expired. This one-year lookback will allow for so many victims of child sexual abuse to be able to bring cases, if they so choose, if that’s what they —that’s the form of justice that they want.

And what we’ve seen in only just one day is upwards of almost 500 cases. And we know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, more. And I think that this is just underscoring the significance of how many people are affected by this, of how important it is to provide protection in the law, and also of how we have to make sure that we are preventing this from happening in the future. Child sexual abuse is something that most people don’t speak about until they’re upwards in their fifties. And so, I think that we have to be very real about this. The fact that this law is trauma-informed and acknowledges that reality is very important, and it’s also something that I think about daily when I’m thinking about policy changes or policy decisions, because we want to make sure our law is trauma-informed.

AMY GOODMAN: We had Sister Helen Prejean on yesterday, the well-known anti-death-penalty activist. But we asked her about what this means — we had her on the day that this law was going into effect — particularly around the Catholic Church. I mean, do you expect to see scores of lawsuits around the Catholic Church, an adult who says 40 years ago this happened to me?

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: I do. And I think that, you know, we’ve heard so much backlash. And, you know, I was raised Roman Catholic. I am not as religious as my parents were. I don’t go to church every Sunday. I did not get married in a church. I was just recently married. And those are very intentional things that I’ve done. It’s actually very disappointing to be brought up in a faith that has really just betrayed so many people and ruined lives.

And so, one of the things that I find to be really upsetting is that the Catholic Church, specifically Cardinal Dolan, has spent, I believe, in the past year, $2.1 million on lobbying efforts to kill this bill. These are the lives of human beings. When you stand on the pulpit and you preach the gospel and the word of God, you speak about things that are trying to protect individuals. You preach about love. That is the opposite, the antithesis of love. And so, you know, institutions like the Catholic Church that have found it very hard to be authentic and truthful are going to have to face their day in court. And whatever the ramifications of that are, they are, because the people who are coming forward deserve their day in court. And that extends also to the Boy Scouts. It extends to any educational institution.

You know, we also are part of the Legislature, right? And the Legislature in Albany has had a real troubled history when it comes to abuse. And I think that this year marked a very different journey toward speaking about this abuse, being very forthcoming about it. And we want to make sure, as legislators, that we hold space for that, that we are allowing people to speak up, and protecting them.

AMY GOODMAN: Assemblywoman, we have 10 seconds. Do you want to see this law as a model for legislatures around the country and for Congress?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER YUH-LINE NIOU: I do. I think that the one-year lookback period is so important. I think that we actually should have extended it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, New York Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi. Both spearheaded the Child Victims Act, which took effect on Wednesday. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our website, democracynow.org.

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