In the broadest of strokes, everyone wants to help end child sexual abuse. So our elected leaders should support legislation to end it, and the more significant the legislation, the more support it would get. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and perhaps nowhere is that more clear than New York’s eleven-year battle to reform the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
Statutes of limitation (SOL’s) on child sexual abuse harken back to when children were considered little more than property, and laws against property crimes were perfectly applicable. If someone vandalizes your house, it makes sense that you’d report it to the police immediately, and failure to do so would understandably raise suspicions. By the same token someone doing something much more heinous to a child seems like it would prompt an immediate reaction. But decades of research proves that isn’t the case.
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) by the Centers for Disease Control proves that child sexual abuse is a trauma so significant that it changes the way its victims’ brains, endocrine systems, immune systems and even their DNA develop*. It is a trauma so profound that most victims can’t talk about it right away, and on average need 21 years.** And when children do tell adults, the adult’s reactions aren’t always heroic and don’t always involve calling law enforcement.
In New York, most sex abuse victims lose their right to press charges on their 23rd birthday. Legislation to lengthen or eliminate the SOL going forward and to provide victims over the age of 23 with one year sue their abusers (retroactive civil actions are constitutional, retroactive criminal actions aren’t) has stalled in New York’s legislature for the last eleven years. The resistance to this legislation largely comes from the Catholic Church, whose argument is essentially “we’ve done a lot of bad things. We know we’re guilty. But holding us accountable will put us out of business and that’s bad”. Amazingly this excuse has worked, especially among the Republicans who dominate New York’s Senate.
Survivors have become more sophisticated in their battle. In 2016 a Political Action Committee was formed to endorse candidates who would support the issue. A petition supporting the bill gained over 70,000 signatures in about 14 months. And an amazing video is circulating via social media.
Still, the issue is considered controversial, and the bill that gained political traction in 2017 was fairly weak, with only a 5-year extension to the criminal SOL. At the eleventh hour a stronger bill was introduced, but it called for all retroactive claims to be reviewed by an independent panel. The justification for this is that there are concerns that masses of false and malicious claims would bankrupt churches and municipalities, and a panel would weed them out.
Survivors found themselves in a remarkably unenviable position; support a bill that is weak, or support a stronger one that codifies a tenant of rape culture, that false reports of child sexual abuse are common. Passing a bill, even a weak one, will provide some immediate benefits to children. Passing the stronger bill would provide more, but it tacitly implies that survivors of this crime are less worthy of a day in court than survivors of other crimes.
In a last-minute twist, governor Cuomo just introduced a program bill that mirrors the weaker, panel-freegood news. He has also said he is pessimistic about the Senate actually coming to the table to pass it.
Let’s reflect for a minute. It has taken eleven years, the release of the movie “Spotlight” and a massive media campaign by the New York Daily News to persuade the leaders of a progressive state that preventing child sexual abuse really is important. It’s taken eleven years to convince our leaders that systematically barring most child sexual abuse victims from the courts is wrong.
The damage that the broken, the sick, the truly evil do to children is horrible, but the damage that the powerful do through ignorance and apathy is truly remarkable. New York clearly is moving in the right direction after eleven tough years. Hopefully, this is just the start of a state and a nation’s growing interest in protecting children, the first step in a long journey. But the fact that this is a journey at all shows how skewed our priorities are.
* Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
“Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse Among Male Survivors” by Scott D. Easton, December of 2013 Clinical Social Work Journal”
COO, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.