Reports this week that decades-old sexual abuse allegations at the Horace Mann School probably can’t be prosecuted because of New York’s statute of limitations raised new questions about why the state only gives victims up to five years after their 18th birthday to report childhood abuse. While lawmakers in Albany have tried many times to relax laws on filing abuse complaints, the Roman Catholic Church has been quietly fighting efforts to change the statute of limitations in New York and throughout the country. They say it’s a matter of principle, but it could also have something to do with the ensuing lawsuits potentially costing the church billions.
More than 30 states have already managed to ease laws on reporting child abuse, but the New York Times reports today that religious officials are pushing against similar efforts in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The church has even hired lobbying and public relations firms to help their cause in New York and Colorado. In the latter, parishes have actually handed out postcards to parishioners and asked them to contact their representatives on the church’s behalf.
The church argues that the statutes of limitations exist to prevent unfair cases in which many of the witnesses are dead and evidence is hard to come by. Religious leaders are pushing hardest against “window” laws, in which victims are given a year or two to file suits no matter how long ago the alleged crime occurred. It’s likely they’re afraid of a repeat of what happened when California passed such a law in 2003. In just one year, 550 sexual abuse lawsuits were filed.
In addition to incidents involving Horace Mann and the Catholic Church, statute of limitation laws have prevented some who say they were victimized from filing lawsuits against Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, Syracuse University coach Bernie Fine, and members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. New York legislators are currently considering — for the eighth time — a bill that would give victims until age 28 to file charges and provide a one-year window for victims of all ages to file civil cases. The Catholic Church doesn’t oppose raising the age limit, but it says declaring a one-year open season for old allegations is totally unacceptable. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who’s involved in a scandal over paying off abusive priests, has fought hard against the proposed law. He says, “We feel this is terribly unjust, we feel it is singles out the church, and it would be devastating for the life of the church.”