Opponents of proposed legislation that would temporarily waive the statute of limitations on child sexual-abuse lawsuits say the bill unfairly targets the Catholic Church and other private institutions because it would not apply to public entities.
New York’s current statute of limitations requires alleged victims of child sex abuse to file civil lawsuits by the time they are 23. But separate statutes for claims against such public entities as municipalities, public schools, public hospitals and government-run institutions require the alleged victims in cases of any nature to file statements of their intent to sue — called notices of claim — within 90 days of the incident.
In effect, public entities would be free of any previously time-barred lawsuits under the Child Victims Act of New York (A2596, S2568), although several studies in recent years show that sexual-abuse cases are prevalent in public schools.
The disparity between public and private institutions is the crux of injustice cited by the New York State Catholic Conference, which is mounting a statewide campaign against the Child Victims Act — also know as the "Markey bill" — sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Queens) and Sen. Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan).
Officials from the Catholic conference said the organization supports a new bill (A5708a, S3107a) that would allow suits to be filed against municipalities as well as nonprofit and religious organizations. Sponsored by Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) and Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), the legislation — known as the "Lopez bill" — also would allow victims to file claims until age 25.
"All victims are treated equally under this (the Lopez) bill," according to a statement from the conference. "Bills that fail to amend notice of claim provisions are discriminatory because they target private institutions and religious organizations yet exempt public schools and state and municipal entities, even though studies have shown public schools are the most frequent location of non-familial sexual abuse."
In written testimony to the Colorado legislature — which in 2006 considered legislation similar to the Markey bill — Charol Shakeshaft, head of educational leadership at the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the physical sexual abuse of students in public schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.
In a March 16 e-mail, Shakeshaft said the New York bill should cover public schools.
"About 7 percent of students report that sometime between kindergarten and 11th grade, they have been the target of physical sexual misconduct by a teacher or other professional adult employed by the (public) school," said Shakeshaft, who, while at Hofstra University, conducted a study for the Department of Education about the prevalence of sexual misconduct among educators.
Michael A. Armtrong, Markey’s communications assistant, said the assemblywoman contends that her proposal does not exclude public entities.
He said victims whose cases against public entities pass the state’s 90-day statutory period may file a late notice of claim, which acknowledges that even though the filing is made beyond the 90-day statutory period, the court will consider permitting a suit depending on the reason for the lateness.
Under the Markey bill, a victim generally would have one additional year after the 90 days in which to file a late notice of claim, Armstrong said, which would put a public-sector plaintiff on equal footing with a private-sector plaintiff.
In a statement, the New York State Catholic Conference said it strongly supports legislative efforts to protect children from sexual abuse, "including mandatory background checks for all public and private employees who work with children, expansion of the ‘mandatory reporter’ law to include clergy and others, and an extension of the criminal statute of limitations for additional sex offenses. An extension or elimination of the criminal statutes would, in effect, extend the civil statutes as well, because state law allows a civil case to be brought upon the disposition of a criminal case, even if it would otherwise be time barred."
Congress also may consider a bill related to this issue. Congressman Chris Lee, who represents New York’s 26th District, and Congressman Adam Putnam from Florida, introduced the Student Protection Act earlier this month. Putnam first introduced the bill in 2007 just prior to the release of an Associated Press investigation that uncovered that 2,570 public-school educators’ teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned over a five-year period from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual abuse. According to the investigation, young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of these cases, and more than 80 percent of those youths were students. Comparatively, a study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org/nrb/johnjaystudy/prev2.pdf) found that between 1950 and 2002 about 4,400 priests and deacons in active ministry were accused of abusing minors.
Lee’s bill would require national uniform reporting of educators accused of sexual misconduct, establish a commission in each state to investigate allegations of abuse, create a national database of educators sanctioned for sexual misconduct and offer a toll-free hotline to report abuse incidents by educators.
In a press release from Lee’s office, Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, offered his support for Lee’s proposed legislation.
"This (bill) brings attention to the often-overlooked problem of child sexual exploitation in our schools," he stated. "The vast majority of teachers are dedicated, decent professionals. However, when abuse occurs there must be meaningful sanctions and oversight in order to prevent teachers from moving to a new school and victimizing additional students."
The AP study found that often the abuse perpetuated by public educators was never reported. The seven-month investigation also uncovered that while several states require reporting of all allegations of sexual misconduct to departments that oversee teacher licensing, enforcement is inconsistent, and laws in Maine even keep secret cases against teachers. Also, while the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification maintains a list of educators who have been punished for any reason, those names are only shared with state agencies.
According to information found at www.academicleadership.org/emprical_research/571.shtml, sexual misconduct is the main reason educators lose or are forced to surrender their teaching licenses. But as of 2003, school officials in only 17 states were required to report to state agencies allegations or resignations of educators suspected of sexual misconduct.
According to statements in the California Catholic Daily made by Mary Jo McGrath, a lawyer who investigates abuse and misconduct in California’s public schools, sexual misconduct by public-school educators is an alarming problem — with nearly three cases of sexual abuse per school day, according to the AP’s study — that the public largely ignores.