Child Victims Act is a Small Step in the Right Direction
After a ten year long battle between sexual assault advocates and institutions like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, many advocates were relieved when the Child Victims Act passed New York legislation on Jan 28th, 2019. The Act aimed to increase the statute of limitations on child sexual assault victims in both criminal and civil cases. Instead of twenty-three, sexual assault survivors now have the ability to pursue charges in civil court by the age of fifty-five. For criminal cases, victims are now able to press charges for felony offenses until they are twenty-eight and misdemeanor charges by twenty-five.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the nation, statute of limitations involving child sex crimes were created to deter the number of unreliable witness testimonies based on memories that would lead to false convictions. Yet, over time, the evolution of more concrete evidence such as DNA, video, and digital communications has made the use of statutes of limitation meaningless . After all, if there is a video of sexual violence being committed against a child and that video only surfaces after the child’s twenty-third birthday then why shouldn’t the perpetrator of the crime be convicted?
One reason the act was adamantly opposed by the Catholic Church was due to the number of priests who were accused of child sexual abuse—38 in Syracuse alone—and how the extension of the statute of limitations would hold the Catholic Church accountable for those crimes, may it be criminally or financially. However, in the last month, many leaders inside the Catholic Church have decided to approve of the bill if a specific clause were added such as holding other institutions that gloss over accusations of child sexual abuse to the same standards as the Church.
This being said, there seems to be a pattern of reformation in the Catholic Church in the last few months. Pope Francis, in the last week has acknowledged the continuous pattern of sexual violence against women and children in the Catholic Church and encouraged victims to come forward to seek justice.
Yet, the question really remains on whether or not this piece of legislation will increase the number of victims seeking justice or financial compensation. While the act does involve an open window clause that allows cases in the last year to be reevaluated under the lens of the new law, will more people be willing to go to civil court since the bar for compensation is lower? Even then, many victims of child sexual abuse have already made their cases with the Catholic Church. With the statutes of limitation no longer protecting them, will the Catholic Church now just pay off victims that come forward?
While the act is a step forward in the acknowledgment of sexual assault survivors, it doesn’t seem to increase the possibility of conviction the abusers since the criminal statute of limitations has only been increased by two to five years. However, the increase of civil cases allows for the victims to seek financial compensation that will help them pursue medical treatment. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, many victims of childhood sexual assault that is untreated tend to have poor social skills, an increased risk for mental disorders such as anxiety and mood disorders, and an inability to keep a stable job or lifestyle .
With all that being said, I believe that the act does very little to increase the number of criminal cases but does encourage sexual assault survivors to tell their story and seek justice whether it be criminal or financial. The act also holds organizations like the Church more accountable, forcing the organization to follow the ties of powerful movements like the Me Too movement. The Act in and of itself is a gateway to more progressive laws and a stepping stone for other states to follow in our footsteps.