New York Times
May 6, 2012
Hawaii significantly strengthened its protections against child sexual abuse last month when Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a measure extending the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits filed by child victims. At least as important, it opens a one-time two-year window to allow victims to file suits against their abusers even if the time limit had expired under the old law.
Like similar laws in California and Delaware, the Hawaii measure recognizes some wrenching realities. It can take many years, even decades, before child abuse victims are emotionally ready to come forward and tell their stories in court. But by then, they may be barred from suing by the statute of limitations. For example, many suits against the Catholic Church have been blocked because the church's covering up for pedophile priests made it hard for victims to come forward until long past the time limit for bringing civil claims.
Hawaii's new law allows child victims to bring suits up to the age of 26 (it was 20), or three years from the time the victim realizes the abuse caused injury. The law's leading opponent was the Roman Catholic Church, which has been working hard to defeat statute of limitations reform across the country.
Lobbying by the church recently succeeded in blocking reform in Pennsylvania. But lawmakers in Massachusetts seem ready to follow Hawaii's example by passing similar reforms.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not yet indicated that he would support a measure sponsored by Margaret Markey in the Assembly to lift the statute of limitations for one year for civil lawsuits involving child sex abuse. After that year, an accuser would have 10 years after turning 18 to make a claim, instead of five years, which is the current law. Mr. Cuomo has voiced concern about fading memories and missing evidence, but those concerns need to be balanced with justice for victims and the need to stop abusers.
Like measures in other states, the Markey bill requires that a victim obtain a certificate from a mental health professional to show there is a reasonable basis to believe the abuse occurred before a suit can go forward.
Getting the measure through the State Senate would be an uphill climb; previous attempts have failed, and Republican leaders have again vowed to stop it. Cardinal Timothy Dolan has made defeating statute of limitations reform one of his top legislative priorities. Mr. Cuomo's strong leadership will be needed if New York is to match Hawaii's accomplishment any time soon.