NY judge upholds Child Victims Act after challenge by Rockville Centre diocese

Nassau County Supreme Courthouse Mineola NY Credit Jimmy Emerson DVM via Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 The Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola, N.Y. | Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A judge ruled Wednesday that New York's Child Victims Act is constitutional, rejecting a suit filed by the Diocese of Rockville Centre that claimed the law is barred by the due process clause in the state constitution.

The act opened a one-year window for adults in the state who were sexually abused as children to file lawsuits against their abusers. It also adjusted the statute of limitations for both pursuing criminal charges and civil suits against sexual abusers or institutions where the abuse took place.

"The court finds the Child Victims Act is a reasonable response to remedy the injustice of past child sexual abuse," Justice Steven Jaeger of the New York Supreme Court in Nassau County wrote in his May 13 decision. "Accordingly, it does not violate defendant diocese's right to due process under the New York State Constitution."

Newsday, a Long Island daily, reported that Jaeger "said New York courts have upheld suspensions of time limitations as a remedy in extraordinary cases," and on this basis he held the law to be a reasonable response.

Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Rockville Centre diocese, said that "We disagree with the court's ruling on the due process challenge to the Child Victims Act and we are analyzing our options with respect to appeal of this and other issues."

The law's one-year window opened in August 2019. It was to have expired Aug. 13, 2020, but was extended by governor Andrew Cuomo this week by five months, to Jan. 14, 2021, due to court delays caused by the coronavirus.

According to Newsday, 44 suits have been filed against the Rockville Centre diocese under the the Child Victims Act. Across the state, more than 1,700 have been filed.

The diocese had filed its motion in November 2019. It said the Due Process clause "allows the legislature to revive formerly time-barred claims only where they could not have been raised earlier," which it adds "is not so here."

"The formerly time-barred claims revived by the legislature pursuant to the Child Victims Act all could have been brought within the then-applicable three- or five-year period, after plaintiffs attained the age of majority," according to the diocese.

The diocese added that the state Court of Appeals "has held that the Due Process Clause allows for the exercise of what it has characterized as an exceptional legislative power 'to remedy an injustice' created by circumstances that prevented the assertion of a timely claim."

It said claims under the Child Victims Act "do not fit within the scope of this narrowly circumscribed legislative authority."

The Child Victims Act was signed into law in February 2019. In addition to opening a one-year window for suits, it allows child abuse victims to file criminal charges up to age 28, and lawsuits up to age 55. Previously, they had until the age of 23 to file charges or a civil claim.

Dolan said the diocese is committed to providing "pastoral care and equitable compensation" to child sex abuse victims through its independent reconciliation and compensation program.

As of August 2019 that program had paid a little more than $50 million to 277 claimants since its 2017 institution. Between 75 and 80 claims were still being processed, and 370 people had filed claims with the program.

The day the one-year lookback was opened, Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston was named in a lawsuit accusing him of sexually abusing a young man while he was a priest of the Rockville Centre diocese, starting in 1978. The bishop has said he is innocent of the accusation.

In January 2019 Dennis Poust, director of the New York Catholic Conference, told CNA the conference had not opposed the final version of the act, which provided the same protections for child abuse victims in public insitutions, including schools, as it did for private institutions.

Earlier versions discriminated between public and private institutions, but once that was amended "the conference dropped any opposition to its passage," he said.

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When the bill was passed, the New York bishops issued a joint statement saying, "We pray that the passage of the Child Victims Act brings some measure of healing to all survivors by offering them a path of recourse and reconciliation."

Earlier this month the Diocese of Buffalo asked a federal court to halt all outstanding clergy sex abuse litigation against it as it navigates bankruptcy proceedings.

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