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New York extends Child Victims Act ‘Look Back’ Window to August 2021

(June 3, 2020)  The New York state Senate and Assembly voted last week to extend the Child Victims Act ‘Look Back’ window to August 2021 for people wishing to file claims that they were sexually abused as children. Supporters of the decision said it resulted from the upheaval caused by the corona virus shutdowns. They said victims need more time in light of the Covid-19 fallout that has hobbled the courts.

The deadline first set for those making claims under the Child Victims Act was August 14, 2020. The new legislation extends that deadline to August 14, 2021.

The 2019 act first lifted the statute of limitations for a one-year filing period even for decades-old allegations, but the shutdowns and disruptions led advocates and survivors to press for an extension.

The New York state Senate passed the new legislation by a vote of 60-0, the Assembly by a a vote of 135-9. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who early in May extended the deadline by five months, to January 2021. A spokesman for the governor said he would review the new bill.

Child Sex Abuse Advocates Hail the Extension

“Justice has been fortified,” said CHILD USAdvocacy’s executive director Kathryn Robb. She called the move “a strong stand against child sex abuse.”

The vice president of government affairs at Safe Horizon, Michael Polenberg, said in a statement: “The Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted filings, prevented survivors from meeting with their lawyers, and delayed the discovery process.”  He added that the new legislation “reinforces the commitment of the original Child Victims Act in creating broader pathways to justice for survivors.”

The Child Victims Act of 2019

The Child Victims Act first took effect Aug. 14, 2019, giving survivors one year to sue over allegations of sex abuse regardless of when they said it occurred.

Under the law Governor Andrew Cuomo signed last February, New York went from one of the toughest states to bring a child sex abuse case to one of the easiest, potentially bringing decades of unresolved claims.

Catholic Church and Boy Scouts Cases Foremost

Victims’ lawyers like David Matthews said they expected most of the lawsuits to name Catholic organizations and the Boy Scouts of America as defendants.

Both the scouts and the church said they were cooperative with those alleging abuse against their organizations.

Boy Scouts of America said in a statement: “We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward.”

Pope Francis has publicly declared the church would honor a new state of openness in child sex crimes, but the pope’s actions behind the scenes have belied his public persona.

The Catholic Church, at first, lobbied hard against New York’s new law proposal, until New York State Catholic Conference spokesman Dennis Poust claimed Catholic leaders dropped their opposition to the new law once it was expanded to include public institutions (like BSA).

The Child Victims Act arrived last year after victims felt empowered by the #MeToo movement and a steady stream of scandals that exposed serial abusers from famous public figures like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and more recently, Jeffrey Epstein, to a team doctor of USA Gymnastics and a Michigan State University physician.

Lawyers like licensed in New York like Mr. Matthews have since filed dozens of sex abuse cases in state courts that were previously barred by the statute of limitations.

Lawyers urge Victims to Come Forward

After several states made it easier to sue, TV ads soliciting child sex abuse lawsuits rose to more than 1,700 in both March and April, increasing from just 46 in January, according to a consulting firm that tracks lawyer ad spending.

“If you were abused in a scouting program, you are not alone,” said an ad often run in San Diego, California. “Come forward. New laws may allow you a path to significant financial compensation.”

Many victims and advocates say the money is secondary. They say they are suing to expose the perpetrators, hold organizations accountable, and help themselves heal.

Some organizations, including the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America, have now acknowledged and apologized for the abuse. Some BSA chapters have reported credibly accused scout masters to law enforcement authorities.

Others have offered compensation to victims. The Archdiocese of New York has paid $65 million to 325 people since 2017. The archdiocese has reported that only one person has rejected an offer.

New York extends Child Victims Act ‘Look Back’ Window to August 2021

Those who accept an offer give up their right to sue, and may not receive as much compensation without their own legal counsel, said Mr. Matthews, who represents more than 100 child sex abuse victims nationwide.

“I think the potential for these cases is still growing, with what we’re seeing with accused serial abusers like Jeffrey Epstein,” said Mr. Matthews, referring to the shadowy billionaire who police officials said committed suicide in jail last August as he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges.

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