Two competing bills in the state Legislature are calling for changes in how civil lawsuits related to child sex-abuse can be filed in New York.
The Child Victims Act of New York (A2596) — also known as the "Markey bill" — is being sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Queens) and available to be voted on at any time by the full Assembly. State Sen. Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan) has introduced an identical bill into the state Senate (S2568).
An alternative bill — A5708a, also known as the "Lopez bill" — is being sponsored by Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) and at press time was under consideration in the Assembly codes committee. The Lopez bill’s state Senate companion (S3107a) is sponsored by Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn).
The provisions of these bills have very different implications, and have elicited very different reactions from the New York State Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the state’s eight bishops.
Here’s a summary of the bills’ provisions, as well as a summary of some of the conference’s reactions:
* Both bills would extend the time in which child sex-abuse lawsuits could be filed.
The Markey bill would allow child sex-abuse lawsuits to be filed until victims are 28, whereas the Lopez bill would allow such lawsuits to be filed until victims are 25. Under current state law, victims have until age 23 to file child sex-abuse suits.
The Catholic conference supports allowing a longer time frame for claims to be filed, including up to age 28.
"We’re very comfortable that we are doing everything we can to protect children now, so we have no objection to any prospective extension of the statute of limitations for criminal or civil claims," said Dennis Poust, the Catholic conference’s director of communications.
* The Markey bill would allow lawsuits that are past the current statute of limitations by an unlimited number of years to be filed during a one-year "window."
According to John H. Blume, professor of law at Cornell University Law School, statutes of limitations are intended to allow justice to be served in a timely fashion.
"You want litigation to proceed when memories are better and events are fresher," said Blume, noting that statutes of limitations also allow people to not have to worry indefinitely that they might be served with criminal or civil actions.
Yet the Markey bill would suspend the statute of limitations on child sex-abuse cases for one year, during which time claimants would be allowed to file cases that previously had been time barred. The Catholic conference notes that suits dating back 40, 50, 60 or 70 years could be filed against a Roman Catholic dioceses, even if the perpetrator, witnesses and assigning bishop have all died.
The Lopez bill contains no such "window" provision.
* The Markey bill would not change the 90-day "notice of claim" requirement that those suing public institutions must fulfill.
Regardless of the nature of their claims, those who wish to sue a public institution are required by current law to file a notice of claim, notifying the institution of their intent to sue within 90 days of an incident. The Markey bill would not change this rule.
Thus, the Markey bill would not bring justice to a large percentage of child sexual-abuse victims who are abused in the home and in schools, according to the Catholic conference, which argues that the bill targets the Catholic Church and other private institutions.
"You can’t call anything ‘just’ if it only applies to some," Poust said. "By definition justice should be equally applied or it is not justice. It’s hard to describe the bill as anything other than a targeting of institutions for that very reason. It exempts the institutions where most of the abuse occurs. And no good reason has been offered as to why."
Though she was unavailable for comment personally, in a statement on her Web site Markey contends that her bill may provide some impetus for judicial action in favor of those attempting to sue a public institution.
"We believe a one-year ‘window’ provision for old claims in this bill will give abuse victims the justification that is needed for a judge to accept their late notice of claim," Markey said in the statement.
"She seems to be going to great lengths to argue around the notice of claim when the legislative fix is very simple," said Rick Barnes, the Catholic conference’s executive director, citing the way that the Lopez bill deals with the notice of claim.
* The Lopez bill would change the "notice of claim" requirement, putting public and private institutions on the same footing with respect to child sex-abuse lawsuits.
The Lopez bill would exempt lawsuits related to child sex-abuse from the state’s general notice-of-claim requirements. The Catholic conference supports this change.
"To protect children now, the Legislature’s focus should be on implementing preventive strategies today," the Catholic conference said in a question-and-answer sheet about the Markey bill. "We support the Lopez/Kruger legislation (A5708 and S3107) because it looks forward, is focused on prevention and treats all victims equally. The Lopez/Kruger bill doesn’t disenfranchise those abused in public schools, hospitals or agencies."
* The Markey bill would require the plaintiff’s attorney to file a "certificate of merit" from a mental-health professional.
According to the text of the Markey bill, such a certificate of merit would be completed by a psychiatrist, psychologist or mental-health counselor, who would be required to state in detail the facts of the abuse as he or she understands them and how he or she came to the conclusion that there is reasonable basis to believe the plaintiff was sexually abused as a child by the alleged perpetrator.