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Church Pushes to Defeat Proposal to Open Window for Older Sex ClaimsThe New York State Catholic Conference has resumed its fierce lobbying against a bill that would open a one-year window to revive suits for clergy sexual abuse where the statute of limitations has expired. Catholic leaders say the proposal would create a flood of financially ruinous lawsuits, many of which would be decades old. As an alternative, they are promoting a more "fair and balanced" approach that would extend the statute of limitations by two years but not revive older claims.
New York Law Journal2009-03-06 12:00:00 AM
The New York State Catholic Conference has resumed its fierce lobbying against a bill that would open a one-year window to revive suits for clergy sexual abuse where the statute of limitations has expired.
Catholic leaders say the proposal would create a flood of financially ruinous lawsuits, many of which would be decades old.
As an alternative, they are promoting a more "fair and balanced" approach that would extend the statute of limitations by two years but not revive older claims.
Bills embodying the two approaches are expected to be considered at a March 17 meeting of the Assembly Codes Committee, said committee chairman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn.
The broader sex abuse litigation bill has passed the Assembly with bipartisan support each year since 2006, but was held in the Senate's Codes Committee each year.
Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the conference, said there is heightened concern this year among the state's Roman Catholic leaders about the improved prospects of the bill's passage in the Senate since that chamber changed to Democratic control after November's election.
Poust said more than 700 people sent letters electronically to members of the Assembly Codes Committee since the sex abuse litigation bill, numbered A2596/S2568 this legislative session, appeared on the committee's agenda late last week. They urged lawmakers to defeat the broader bill and to approve the alternative approach that has been embraced by the conference.
Currently there is a five-year statute of limitations in New York state past the age of majority for people to bring civil actions based on alleged sexual abuse, meaning an action can be filed until an alleged victim turns 23.
A2596/S2568 would further extend that maximum age for a victim for filing civil actions to 28. More objectionable to the conference, the bill would create a one-year window in which people who allege they were sexually abused by clergy members as children can file civil actions, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse might have taken place.
The Catholic Church believes it would be impossible for the church to defend against allegations that could be as old as 50 or 60 years.
"We don't think that promotes justice," Poust said in an interview. "It is just a device to bankrupt us."
A2596/S2568 also would extend to 28 from 23 the age for a victim to bring criminal charges for previously unrelated incidents of abuse committed when the victim was a minor. The age limit applies to the victims of sexual crimes that do not rise to the Class A or Class B felonies, for which there are no statute of limitations.
An alternative measure filed in the Assembly on Feb. 19, A5708, would add two years to the statute-of-limitations period, allowing the filing of civil actions based on church-based sex abuse to when the victim is 25. It contains no window for filing retroactive suits for past abuse.
Its sponsor, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, D-Brooklyn, said his bill also would allow the filing of suits against schools, hospitals and other public institutions. Lopez said the broader bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, D-Queens, does not allow suits against public institutions for which the sex abusers of children may have worked, a contention that Markey has disputed.
"The unlimited opening of the statute of limitation, even if it is only for one year, is troublesome," Lopez said in an interview. "We are broadening the period of time. We are leveling the playing field."
Lopez's bill also does not contain provisions raising the statute of limitations from age 23 to 28 for the victims of childhood sexual misconduct to bring criminal charges against abusers.
In a memo, the state Catholic Conference said Mr. Lopez's bill provides a "fair and balanced approach, while protecting the fundamental elements of our judicial system."
Poust said his group had no objection to much of what is in Markey's bill, either, except for the retroactivity of civil suits.
"The window is the provision that we can't live with," he said.
Several groups, including the Legal Aid Society of New York City and the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, have told Lopez that they are opposed to provisions of Markey's bill raising the statute-of-limitations period for bringing criminal charges for sex crimes against children.
Steven Banks, Legal Aid's attorney-in-chief, said the current statutes of limitations for such cases are adequate to protect children while also shielding defendants against unreasonable prosecutions.
"Without minimizing the difficulties that many young victims faced, under the current law, there is already adequate time to seek redress through the criminal justice system," Banks said in an interview. "The imposition of a statute-of-limitation period is intended to lessen the possibility that a person is convicted because a person can't adequately defend against charges that occurred in the past, when memories have faded, documents aren't available and witnesses aren't available."
Lopez said he does not yet have a sponsor for his bill in the Senate, but that several Democrats who are newly in the majority are interested in his approach.
Markey did not return calls for comment. She has said she had a "very good feeling" that the changeover in the majority in the Senate would allow her bill to get through that chamber this year (See NYLJ, Nov. 21, 2008).
Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, is sponsoring Markey's bill in the Senate. His counsel, Mark W. Furnish, said Duane is also optimistic about the measure's chances this year.
Furnish said Duane has not been persuaded by the arguments of the conference that passage of legislation similar to A2596/S2568 in California, Washington and Delaware has practically bankrupted the Catholic churches in those states.
Poust countered that the church in California has had to pay out more than $1 billion in settlements to abuse victims and that the church there has faced more than 800 suits. California created a one-year window, which ran in the calendar year 2003, for the filing of otherwise time-barred suits.
"In California, there has been a flood of lawsuits," Poust said. "You can't litigate every one of these suits. You can successfully defend 19 of these suits, and then lose a $50 million judgment in the 20th suit. That has forced them to reach large-scale settlements, regardless of the strength of the claims."
Poust said he expected Cardinal Edward Egan and the state's Catholic bishops to discuss the sex abuse litigation bills with Gov. David A. Paterson and lawmakers when the Catholic leaders hold their annual lobbying day in Albany on March 9-10.
Joel Stashenko can be contacted via e-mail at Joel.Stashenko@incisivemedia.com