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Child Victims Act may have cleared another Albany hurdle

Former child actor Corey Feldman was one of

Former child actor Corey Feldman was one of the speakers urging passage of the Child Victims Act at the State Capitol in Albany on March 14, 2018. Credit: AP / Times Union / Skip Dickstein

ALBANY — The decadelong effort to pass an act to allow victims of child sexual abuse more time to sue abusers appears to have overcome another obstacle after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said this week he would seek to address an issue that the Catholic Church has said would have shielded public schools and government from such lawsuits.

The New York State Catholic Conference had argued that a new bill  offered by Cuomo in his budget address last week omitted a key, 10-word clause. That clause, which had been in versions of the bill last year, stated that victims wouldn’t be required to have filed a notice of claim within 90 days of abuse. In New York law, notices of claim are required to be filed before a judge could allow a civil suit against a public sector entity, such as public schools or government agencies, to proceed.

A draft bill  before the legislature also does not contain that provision. Cuomo and legislators had argued the overall intent of the Child Victims Act would have been enough to suspend the notice-of-claim deadline. But the Catholic Conference’s lawyers argued that judges wouldn’t be able to advance a civil case without a properly filed notice of claim.

No notice of claim is required to sue a private sector entity, such as a church or private school, religious organization or youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America.

“If adding this unnecessary, duplicative language will commit the church to support this critical piece of legislation, we will be more than happy to engage with the legislature for inclusion in the final bill," said Alphonso David, counsel to the governor. “As the governor said, justice delayed is justice denied and these victims have been denied justice long enough,” David said.

The Catholic Conference had opposed the Child Victims Act proposal for years and it wasn’t until late last year that it supported a “look-back” at past cases. The look-back provision would provide a period of time up to a year for victims to file lawsuits against individuals and institutions for abuse that happened even decades ago, suspending the statute of limitations.

The conference said that agreeing to talk about the measure isn’t the same as restoring the clause, but that, if the change sticks, the church would no longer be opposed.

“If the final bill fairly included the victims of public entities, including schools, for retroactive claims, the Catholic Conference would remove its opposition,” said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the Catholic Conference.

In addition, Poust said, the Catholic Conference “would actively support the legislation” if the final version includes eliminating a criminal statute of limitations and creates a statewide compensation program for survivors. These are measures being considered by legislators who are crafting their own bills, which several advocates said they expect to be tougher than Cuomo’s proposal.

“We have the votes in the legislature, whether they oppose it or not,” said Assemb. Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), co-sponsor of a legislative bill. “The church, it seem to me, wants to say it is involved to mete out justice, too, when they spent several years opposed. So it’s a game.”

She and Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), also a co-sponsor, say the legislature's bill treats public and private entities equally, although no decision has yet been made to specifically restore the wording, as Cuomo said he would.

“We’re looking at a number of ways to strengthen the legislative language,” Hoylman said. “Our intention all along has been for the legislation to apply to public and private institutions, and we think the governor’s bill does that.”

He noted the sponsors are trying to make sure no loopholes are created as a result of the formidable opposition by the many institutions, insurance companies and a wide range of businesses lobbying against the measure.

“Groups trying to undermine the intention of this bill are going to be sorely disappointed when it’s introduced,”  Hoylman said.

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