NY Child Victims Act is Well-Intentioned but is Bad Criminal Justice Policy

OK I’m ready for the negative comments and hate e-mails. After all who could be against a law that gives more rights to victims of child sexual abuse? I mean besides the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America for their obvious reasons of self-preservation. Well, how about someone who has seen how the criminal justice system works and does not trust it to protect the innocent?

The reason we have statutes of limitation in the first place is because a democratic society has to balance the rights of the victim against the rights of the innocent. NY’s recently enacted Child Victims Act goes too far in expanding the time in which alleged victims (that’s right I said alleged because some of the charges they bring may not be true) can bring not only civil cause of action for monetary and punitive damages but in which a felony and misdemeanor complaint can be brought.

Under the new law, persons claiming to have survived sexual abuse as children will be able to file civil lawsuits against abusers and institutions until they are 55 years old. The current law permits victims to sue until they are 23. The Child Victims Act also includes a “look-back window” for adult victims who were previously prohibited by the statute of limitations to sue during a one-year period.

On the criminal side, the bill will give law enforcement more time to file charges against abusers. Under the Act, complainants would be able to seek felony criminal charges until their 28th birthday, and they’d have until their 25th birthday to seek misdemeanor charges. So if a person was victimized or believed they were victimized when they were say 5 years old, criminal charges could be brought against their alleged abuser 23 years after the fact. How can anyone defend themselves against allegations from over 20 years ago? How could they establish any alibi? How will they be able to locate witnesses in support of their defense? Businesses only generally keep records for between 7-10 years, so documents that could have established your innocence will be long gone.

The scales must be balanced to protect the innocent

A rightful effect of the #MeToo movement has been establishing that believing a victim’s claim is enough. That victims of sexual abuse should not be disbelieved merely because they have no independent corroboration. While that belief is welcome and long overdue, at the same time allowing decades-old allegations to form the basis of a criminal complaint is dangerous to the criminal justice system. One of the reasons that murder cases do not have a statute of limitation is the heinous nature of the offense. But another is that there must be other evidence besides a victim’s word to challenge a persons’s freedom so far away from the date of the crime.

The act also extends the civil statue of limitation. It allows an alleged victim to file a civil lawsuit all the way to age 55. No person or entity can validly defend against a claim that has been dormant so long. Shouldn’t there at least be some requirement showing that the person or entity tried to hide their behavior and actions from the victim’s family and their employer or organization? Already NY laws allowed child victims to use their 18th birthday as the start of any statue of limitation, meaning that for civil wrongs like negligence etc they could bring the claim until age 21. Was there any statistical evidence that this protection left many behind?

The law was enacted in response to the widespread child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. There are already compensation programs in place for victims of the Church in NY and several other states. Administrators who oversee five of the compensation programs in New York state say more than 1,000 people have participated in the program.

I get the sentiment and reasoning behind this Act. And I have no doubt that the proponents of this bill were well-intentioned and had their hearts in the right place. But I also have no doubt that this expansive statute of limitation will ensnare some innocent people. It will happen. The question for our Legislature is whether we are okay with that in order to fix a problem that may not have existed.

oscarmichelen@gmail.com


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