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Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Abuse In New York Want More Time To File Lawsuits

Hans Pennink
Michael Polenberg, vice president of Safe Horizon, surrounded by New York legislators, advocates and victims of child molestation, speaks in favor of legislation authorizing the Child Victims Act at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., in 2019.

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 was approved in late January 2019, and it allows survivors to file criminal charges against their alleged abusers until they reach the age of 28. They can pursue a civil lawsuit until the age of 55. The new rules left out thousands of older adults, though, 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 also have their day in court.

Michael Polenberg, with the New York City based Safe Horizons, a victims’ services agency, says halfway through,1,400 lawsuits have already been filed. He says 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 says 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 advisor abused him when he was 16-years-old. He says it took him 20 years of therapy and other recovery work to get up the courage to do it.

“And learning finally 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 says 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. He 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 says Democrats are considering the bill.

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

A former opponent of the Child Victims Act, the Catholic Church, says 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. A spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, Dennis Poust, says the church urges all survivors to come forward, “in whatever way they feel safe” and that they will be offered help. And he says, “the sooner the better.”

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