The Catholic Church, with strong backing from the insurance industry and the Boy Scouts of America, has been successful for years in blocking state legislation that would allow adults to bring lawsuits for sexual abuse they suffered as children. That wall of obstruction is now gradually being breached, and none too soon.
A law enacted this year in New York has unleashed a flood of lawsuits, many against the church and its institutions, as well as individual abusers, by survivors hoping for a measure of justice - and recognition - for traumas they suffered years or decades ago. On the day the Child Victims Act went into force, in mid-August, hundreds of suits were filed; hundreds or perhaps thousands more are expected in coming months.
The state’s former statute of limitations imposed draconian limits on civil lawsuits, which childhood victims were required to file before the age of 23. Now, for a one-year window, survivors of any age will be allowed to file civil lawsuits; after that, they will have until age 55.
New York is not the first state to open such a window: California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii led the way. But Albany is at the vanguard of what may become a wave of action in state capitals signaling an aggressive new approach - and a rejection of arguments that have long blocked survivors from seeking their day in court. New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and others have enacted similar measures to grant now-adult victims more time to sue priests, coaches and others who abused them long ago. Pennsylvania, where the state attorney general’s office last year documented hundreds of cases of abuse stretching back more than half a century, continues to debate tough new legislation, though so far it has been blocked by Republican leaders in Harrisburg.
The Vatican has struggled to implement sweeping reforms that convincingly convey the message that it will no longer tolerate the systematic coverups and lack of accountability for clergy sex abuse. The American church could do so by dropping its aggressive opposition to state laws such as the one enacted in New York. Granted, that opens the door to payouts to victims that will take a toll on the church’s coffers. But it’s a reasonable price to pay to resurrect the idea that the church hierarchy is genuinely committed to transparency and justice.