By Jim Dwyer (NY Times)
April 27, 2010
Should it be possible to sue the city of New York for sexual abuse by public school teachers that happened decades ago? How about doctors or hospital attendants? Police officers? Welfare workers? Playground attendants?
For nearly a year, the city has tiptoed around that question, but in the coming months, there may be no ducking it. Legislation in Albany would force public officials to answer for the crimes of earlier generations, just as Catholic bishops have.
What began as an effort by legislators to expand judicial accountability for sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has grown to cover people in every walk of life. One bill would temporarily suspend the statute of limitations, and allow people who say they were abused as children to file lawsuits up to age 58 — that is, 40 years after they turned 18.
It is a collision of powerful civic values: the need to provide justice to people who were outrageously injured as children and manipulated into silence, and the duty of courts to decide cases based on reliable evidence.
Until last year, proposals to change the statute of limitations would not have affected public bodies and fallen largely on the church. After much debate, the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, a Queens Democrat, was amended to include governments and their employees.
Suddenly, lobbyists and advocates for school boards, counties and small towns spoke out.
"Statutes of limitation exist for a reason," said Bob Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "How can anyone go back 40 years and ascertain what happened? Witnesses, responsible authorities, even the perpetrator himself or herself, may have passed away."
The State Association of Counties weighed in, saying in a memo of opposition that "a fact-finder would have to make a determination based upon significantly aged and clouded" evidence.
And the New York State School Boards Association said the costs of old misdeeds would be borne by people who had nothing to do with them, and "provide no corresponding protection" to children. The bill ultimately was not voted on last year. It is back again, and no doubt will get fresh life from the continuing stream of revelations about high church officials who covered up abuse.
To date, New York City has been publicly silent on the proposal, but sees the possibility of enormous expenses.
"The city has taken no official position on the bills, but we have real concerns about their potential impact on the taxpayers," said Francis Barry, a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Assemblywoman Markey's bill – and its companion in the Senate, sponsored by Ruth Hassell-Thompson — would provide a one-year window for filing lawsuits that go back 40 years.
Once that window had closed, the statute of limitations would run 10 years after a child turns 18. It's five years now for private individuals, and 90 days for public institutions.
OVER the past decade, court cases showed that in many dioceses, senior members of the hierarchy would not take action against priests accused of abuse, but simply shift them into other jobs. Children were threatened or cajoled into keeping secret what was done to them. Their shame was used as leverage by the abusers. One result is that few reports surfaced until years after the fact. That showed the need for an extended statute of limitations, said Mike Armstrong, a spokesman for Assemblywoman Markey.
"There has been coordinated, deliberate campaigns to keep victims silent in one way or another," he said. Most of the opposition to allowing more time to sue has come from the state's conference of Catholic bishops, he added.
He said he did not believe the government associations were as vulnerable as the church. The State Catholic Conference said it supports extending the time allowed to sue, but not to 40 years.
Since 2004, Catholic dioceses nationwide have paid $1.4 billion to settle claims of abuse, many from acts from the 1970s or earlier. (Other states give more time to file suit in such cases.) Yet there is little evidence to show there is more sexual abuse among Catholic priests than among clergy from other denominations, or, for that matter, among people from other walks of life.
An audit found just six credible allegations of abuse last year against American priests, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In the months to come, the State Legislature will be deciding if the past has a future.