A New York Assembly committee Tuesday approved a bill that would give victims of sexual abuse a year to revive currently time-barred civil suits but defeated for now a new alternative bill that is favored by the Roman Catholic Church to provide victims with far more limited statute-of-limitations relief.
The bill that advanced in the Codes Committee by an 11-8 margin, A2596/S2568, has passed the Assembly with bipartisan support each year since 2006 but has been bottled up in the Senate due to Republican opposition.
With the Senate now in Democratic control, final passage of the bill in the Legislature is considered more likely this year. Gov. David A. Paterson supported the bill when he was a state senator.
But the alternative measure, A5708/S3107, had gained sponsors and attention since its introduction last month as the New York State Catholic Conference put its lobbying clout in Albany behind the legislation. The alternative bill was defeated 11-8 by the Codes Committee Tuesday.
The chairman of the Codes Committee, Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, said he thought both bills would be reported out by his committee and was surprised the newer legislation was defeated.
"I thought that the members would try to take a middle position and maybe try to forge a compromise by reporting both bills," Lentol, who voted for both bills, said in an interview following the meeting.
Defeat by the Codes Committee does not necessarily doom the alternative bill. After members took their roll call vote indicating 11 "no" votes, Lentol took the bill off the committee's agenda. That will allow for its return to the committee's calendar at a later time this legislative session, Lentol said.
"I expect that ... there will be pressure for it to come back," he said.
A2596/S2568, the bill approved in the past by the Assembly, would create a one-year window for the filing of civil suits by the victims of childhood sexual abuse if they were past the age when the current statute of limitations expires, which is when an alleged victim turns 23. The bill would also extend the statute of limitations for the filing of civil suits to when alleged victims turn 28 and the statute of limitations to when victims turn 28 for the filing of some criminal charges relating to the sexual abuse of minors.
The bill would apply to all child sex abuse cases, but its supporters have said it is particularly designed to aid the victims of abuse by clergy members.
A2596/S2568 is being sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, D-Queens, and Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan.
The Catholic Conference, representing the state's Catholic bishops and New York Archbishop-elect Timothy Dolan, contends that Markey's bill would allow the filing of suits against the church based on alleged abuse that may have taken place decades before. The church could not hope to defend itself properly against many of the claims, the conference argues.
The alternative, A5708/S3107, contains no window for reviving otherwise time-barred civil actions nor an extender of the statute of limitations for filing sex-related criminal charges for childhood sex abuse. It would extend to 25 the age until which childhood sex abuse victims can file civil suits.
The sponsor of the alternative, Vito J. Lopez, D-Brooklyn, said his bill also corrects a loophole in Markey's bill by allowing suits based on the sexual abuse of children in schools, housing complexes and other public accommodations. Markey's office disputes that such suits are not allowed under her legislation.
Sen. Carl Kruger, D-Brooklyn, and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is sponsoring Lopez's bill in the Senate.
Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, voted for Lopez's bill and against Markey's bill Tuesday.
He noted that the state has waived the statute of limitations for the filing of otherwise time-barred civil suits in the past, but only for exposure to substances or drugs that later proved to be dangerous.Schimminger was a chief sponsor of the 1986 "toxic torts" statute allowing late suits by victims of exposure to industrial chemicals, including tungsten carbide.
The state also waived the statute of limitations for suits by those exposed to the Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange and to DES, a drug prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s to ease nausea.
In all previous cases, Schimminger said there were an "ascertainable" number of potential plaintiffs who could be expected to file civil suits for exposure to toxic substances if the statute of limitations was waived. But that would not be the case with suits based on childhood sex abuse, he said Tuesday.
Assemblyman Daniel J. O'Donnell, on the other hand, voted for Markey's bill and against Lopez's bill.
The Markey bill "is designed to provide some sense of closure and some sense of justice for victims who, based on the state of the law, were precluded from being allowed to seek that justice," O'Donnell said Tuesday.
Catholic leaders claim a similar one-year window in California reviving time-barred child sex abuse resulted in more than 800 suits and settlements of more than $1 billion with the church.
"I think that what the alternative [Lopez] bill does is actually provide insulation and protections for institutions if they failed to protect the children under their care," O'Donnell said.
Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference, said the group was pleased the Markey bill came close to being defeated by the Codes Committee.
"There have been years where we didn't get more than one vote on the floor, let alone the committee," Mr. Poust said Tuesday. "The more legislators understand about the bill, the more they see the problem."
As for Lopez's bill, Poust said he expected it to return to the Codes Committee, possibly with minor alterations, and to also get to the floor of the Assembly.
Lentol said the Markey bill now goes to the full Assembly, though he said it could take several weeks before it comes up for debate and a vote.