Cuomo orders expanded window for NY sex abuse lawsuits, citing coronavirus

shutterstock 512357458 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, pictured in 2016. | a kat/Shutterstock.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order to extend for five months the legal window for victims of childhood sex abuse to file civil claims, due to court delays caused by the coronavirus epidemic.

Victims of sex abuse may now file by Jan. 14, 2021 instead of August 13 of this year. Cuomo said May 8 the extension is needed "because people need access to the courts to make their claim, because justice too long delayed is justice denied," the New York Daily News reports.

On March 22 non-essential court filings were frozen as part of New York's efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The court system is preparing to allow new filings under the state's Child Victims Act.

Before the epidemic, some legislators had advocated for an extension on the legal window.

"Coming forward as a survivor of child sexual abuse takes courage, focus and lots of time," said State Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who had sponsored the Child Victims Act. "As the unemployment rate spikes above 14%, it's unreasonable to expect survivors of child sexual abuse to do the emotional and legal work necessary to file (Child Victims Act) lawsuits while simultaneously fighting to pay rent and put food on the table."

The window, which began in August 2019, allows a year-long period for lawsuits to be filed in cases of alleged child sex abuse where the statute of limitations had already expired.

On May 4 the Diocese of Buffalo asked a federal court to halt all outstanding clergy sex abuse litigation against it as it navigates bankruptcy proceedings. The diocese, which filed for bankruptcy in February, has been named in more than 250 sex abuse lawsuits under the legal window.

In addition to providing a legal window, The Child Victims Act also adjusted the statute of limitations for pursuing criminal charges and civil suits against sexual abusers or institutions. Previously, a survivor of child sexual abuse had until the age of 23 to file charges or a civil claim. Now, with the passage of the law, survivors have up until the age of 28 to file criminal charges, and age 55 to file a lawsuit.

When the legislation was passed, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and the state's public schools all said they were preparing for the possibility of a large number of alleged abuse victims to file lawsuits.

The Catholic Church had voiced some opposition to earlier proposed versions of the Child Victims Act, on the grounds they did not provide the same protections for child abuse victims in public institutions, including schools, as it did for private institutions. The final version of the law eliminated these differences.

The Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy in September 2019, in response to the lawsuits filed during the legal window. The parishes and charitable affiliates of the diocese are separately incorporated and are not affected by the diocese's bankruptcy effort.

However, these individual entities face lawsuits for their own alleged role in failing to halt sexual abuse by clergy or others. St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Irondequoit and Holy Name parish in Elmira are named in over two dozen claims. Catholic Charities and the Catholic Youth Organization have been named in lawsuits 15 times. Legal defense costs alone could permanently bankrupt them, the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper reports.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul Warren, who is overseeing the diocesan bankruptcy case, has ordered a temporary freeze on these claims and on dozens of abuse lawsuits against the Rochester diocese.

At the time of his order, the legal window was still set to close in August 2020, and the judge's order expired the same day as the window. This means Cuomo's extension will not apply to legal claims against Rochester diocese and Catholic entities there unless Warren decides to change his deadline.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre in November 2019 filed a suit challenging the New York lawsuit legislation itself, claiming the window for lawsuits violated the state constitution's due process clause. It argued that the legislature may only revive formerly time-barred claims "only where they could not have been raised earlier." Sex abuse victims could have brought civil claims in the previous window, the diocese said.

In mid-2019, the Archdiocese of New York filed a lawsuit against 31 insurance companies, charging that many intend to limit or deny insurance claims for lawsuits filed in the legal window. The lawsuit argued that the archdiocese is entitled to all benefits of the policies, including coverage of legal fees during litigation.

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