By Sophia Hollander (Wall Street Journal)
June 4, 2014
A charismatic teacher was accused of sexually abusing female students as young as 12 years old during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Decades later, the women found one another and confronted the man they called their abuser.
That could describe recent situations in both New York and Virginia. In each state, a group of women in their 50s accused a former teacher of molesting or raping them as children.
But differences in the states' statute-of-limitations laws has meant the outcomes diverge sharply. In Virginia, which has no limit on bringing felony charges, former teacher Christopher Kloman was sentenced to 43 years in prison last October, after pleading guilty to four counts of indecent liberties with a child younger than 14 and one count of abduction with intent to defile.
In New York, former teacher Bob Rusch cannot be prosecuted in a criminal or civil trial because the state's statute of limitations expired decades ago. For civil cases, New York requires people who allege they were abused as minors to come forward by age 23.
Mr. Rusch said "there definitely was some inappropriate behavior" and expressed regret for it.
New York's statute-of-limitations laws have one of the shortest windows in the country for pursuing sexual-abuse complaints through the courts. They have become a flash point in a recent series of high-profile cases in private schools across the state, including Horace Mann in the Bronx, Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan and Hackley School in Westchester.
All four schools have issued apologetic statements, and some have negotiated settlements with accusers, though the statute of limitations poses a big hurdle for people who want to file lawsuits.
An effort to give people in New York who say they were abused as minors more time to file lawsuits has passed four times in the state Assembly before stalling in the Senate. Supporters of the bill said they would try again this year.
The proposed law would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations for sex crimes against minors. It would also introduce a one-time, one-year window, beginning 60 days after the governor signs it, for people to bring civil suits against people or institutions in older abuse cases.
The window provision has drawn the most criticism from opponents. Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, a lobbying group that represents the state's bishops, called the ability to prosecute cases that might stretch back five decades or more "fundamentally unfair," since it is often hard to defend against older claims.
The bill's prime sponsor, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, a Democrat from Queens, said the window is essential. "I've had people come to my office, especially in Albany, who were raped 40 years ago, they're now in their 60s and they've lived with this pain all this time," said Ms. Markey.
In 2002, California passed legislation that included a year-long window. Around 1,000 lawsuits were filed, most against the Catholic church, with settlements costing more than $1 billion.
Since then, similar measures have passed in Delaware, Minnesota and Hawaii. Other states, such as Illinois and Florida, have extended or dropped their statute-of-limitations laws in recent years.
New York is one of five states, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Michigan, that have kept strict time limits on filing civil claims for sexual abuse experienced as a child, according to Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, who has studied this issue and represented victims.
"New York is so far behind the trends in the country to try to help child-abuse victims get access to justice," she said.
Some alleged victims have taken other measures. One former student at Horace Mann who said he was abused during a school-sponsored trip to New Jersey is suing the elite Bronx private school in that state. Earlier this year, a judge upheld his right to pursue the case after school officials sought to have it dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
"The school has very strong defenses and remains…confident that it will prevail in this action," the school said after the ruling.
Mr. Rusch is also accused of abusing students outside of New York during cross-country trips he ran with his now-deceased wife during summers. He declined to comment on these allegations.