ALBANY — Just as a bill to empower victims of child sexual assault appeared ready for quick passage under the new Democratic majority in the State Senate, the measure is getting a hard second look even by its supporters.
The Assembly's Democratic majority easily passed the Child Victims Act for the past two years and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has supported it, but the bill stood no chance of becoming law because of opposition by the Senate’s then-Republican majority.
Republicans, however, lost that majority in the November elections, prompting advocates to launch a hard push for quick action in January on one of Albany's most difficult and long-standing issues without watering down the measure. However, legislative supporters and Cuomo are re-evaluating the consequences, particularly over a “look-back” provision that will provide a year for victims to bring up cases that may have happened decades ago.
Opponents fear a flood of civil suits and costly settlements. Supporters fear the look-back provision and other elements of the proposal will be watered down or dropped in the renewed negotiations.
When the bill had no chance of passing the Senate, some supporters could vote for it without thoroughly examining the consequences, legislators say. But any bill likely to become law would face more scrutiny to avoid unintended consequences.
“These are no longer one-house issues and they have serious financial implications for the state,” said Assemb. Patricia Fahy (D-Albany). “We have a lot of homework to do.”
State lobbying records show the powerful New York State United Teachers union, the Association of Small City School Districts, the American Insurance Association, and the Alliance of New York State YMCAs are already registered to weigh in on the measure.
“We have concerns about any provision that retroactively removes the statute of limitations for civil cases,” stated Maggie Seidel, chief spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association.
Legislators and Cuomo since the Nov. 6 election have been reconsidering the potential fiscal repercussions on the Catholic Church. The church runs many of the state’s social services under contracts more cheaply than the state can, and also operates hospitals, colleges and religious schools which could be threatened by big court judgments.
“Nobody wants to see a diocese or the Catholic Church bankrupt, so how it is done is very important,” Cuomo said on Nov. 20. “Nor do I think you should say, ‘Well, this may cost the church money, so we shouldn’t do it.’ ”
The reaction to that statement the next day was swift.
“After more than a decade of opposition, survivors of childhood sexual abuse are finally on the verge of getting justice,” stated Safe Horizons, an advocacy group for survivors of child sexual abuse. “But for Governor Cuomo to suggest that children abused in the church would be responsible for bankrupting it is misguided and wrong."
Since those comments, Cuomo has sought to reassure advocates that he supports the concept of the bill, even as details are being negotiated.
“He will do everything in his power to get the law passed in the upcoming session,” Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall said.
Today, Michael Polenberg of Safe Horizon said he’s hopeful the bill will pass, but he knows some of the hardest work is ahead amid concerns by advocates that lobbying could dilute the bill and its look-back provision.
“It’s so beyond the Catholic Church, the universe is much more,” he said. The lobbying opposition “has been formidable for years.”
But for survivors of child sexual abuse, this is not a bill that can be watered down to suit political interests.
“It affected my life tremendously,” said Dorothy Farrell, 53, a retired social worker. She was abused by a relative from ages 6 to 12 while growing up in Manhasset. To protect her family from the pain of her nightmare, she waited to take action until she was 23.
“I was told I was too old,” she said.
The proposed Child Victims Act would address that. The working bill would extend current civil and criminal time frames within which victims are required to start proceedings. The bill covers physical and psychological abuse.
Senate Majority Leader-elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) has refrained from commenting on specific bills, but when asked about the act in November, she said: “There have been a lot of issues that over the years haven’t moved forward, a lot of issues that have been blocked … we’ve got a lot to do.”
The breadth of the bill in the face of public school and other lobbyists is a concern for Robert Cosgove, 46, who said he was abused in a Protestant school on Long Island when he was 12.
“I wanted people to know it’s not just the Catholic Church,” said Cosgrove, who said he recovered memories of his abuse only a year ago. “It seems like the rest of it isn’t getting enough attention . . . Now I have made it a goal of mine to help as many people as possible, whether it’s monetary, or therapy or whatever. The only way they are going to get better is to face it.”
Just before the November election, when many political observers predicted Democrats would seize control of the Senate, the Catholic Church announced it was willing to negotiate a look-back provision. The statement came months after Cardinal Timothy Dolan called look-back “toxic” to the church.
"We believe that any legislation should put victim-survivors first,” said Dennis Poust, spokesman for New York State Catholic Conference. “That means making sure that all survivors are afforded the opportunity to be heard and compensated as they heal, whether they were abused in a church, public school, family, or any other setting. We will work constructively with survivors and elected officials on a Child Victims Act that helps all survivors, and that preserves the Catholic Church's ability to provide educational, charitable, and sacramental ministries that serve millions of New Yorkers every year."
Democrats must also contend with impatient supporters.
“The church is now trying to close in on some of the finer points and this is not their opportunity to decree what is acceptable to them,” said Assemb. Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan). “Opponents want to be seen as supporting what will pass, but we won’t fall for those tricks.”
“I’m not in the mood to negotiate away something that survivors have been clamoring for for 12 years,” she said.
“There is no evidence the sky is falling,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), a longtime sponsor of the bill. “The courthouses are not flooded, the institutions are not bankrupt. That’s why they carry insurance polices. And there aren’t false claims.”
He agreed, however, that more discussion, negotiation and public hearings were needed. “You just don’t want to walk into the Senate and pass a bill as powerful as something like the Child Victims Act,” he said.