THE CHILD VICTIMS ACT took effect in New York state on Wednesday, August 14. The law extends the rights of people sexually abused before the age of 18 to sue their abusers and confront them in court.
The date is important because some people who were victims had lost the right to sue their abusers once the period of time for filing a case against the abuser had elapsed. In effect, the new law turns back the clock and gives those victims exactly one year to file cases against their abusers. And because the law was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on February 14 of this year, the victims have had time to prepare.
The law also allows victims who haven’t yet come forward to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser until the victims are 55 years.
Not only individuals will be called to account. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that public and private institutions are bracing for legal actions against them, presumably for charges of covering up abuse or inadequately protecting children in their care.
This long overdue law was bottled up in the state Senate for a decade. When Democrats regained a majority in the Senate this year, the Child Victims Act was one of the first measures adopted. Now we’ll see whether the judges and juries can bring some justice to the victims while protecting the right to a presumption of innocence.
There was a time not long ago when now-discredited theories like “recovered memories” led to false accusations and the manipulation of child witnesses. But no one can deny the scale of child sexual abuse uncovered since the Boston Globe first reported on the cover-up of clergy abusers by the Boston Archdiocese. That story was followed by similar cases exposed in churches, schools, sports teams and other organizations all over the country.
You don’t have to look beyond the trials at the Columbia County Courthouse to know that the sexual abuse of children exists here. Think, too, of the candidate for state office found guilty of a sex crime a few years ago. And in this issue we publish a letter from a mother who says her son, when he was a child, was sexually abused by a man who previously lived in the Town of Copake.
I’m not a victim but I can tell you about someone who was. We were Boy Scouts together and our troop took a mid-winter hike up a Catskills mountain. About a dozen boys and two adults headed up a trail in knee-deep snow. Half-way to the top we stopped at a campsite to spend the night. We each made a place to sleep on the snow, no tents, no shelter, just our sleeping bags. Not much of a campfire either.
Sam—not his real name—was about my age but a more experienced camper. His bag was further away from the embers of the fire. It was bitter cold. I was shivering in an old Army sleeping bag. The assistant scoutmaster walked by, dropped a wool blanket on me and walked away, saying nothing. I think now the blanket protected me from frostbite and maybe saved my life.
The next morning the scoutmaster and assistant scoutmaster led the older scouts up to the top of the mountain. A few of us younger scouts stayed behind at the campsite. We talked about the cold and how difficult it had been to sleep. Sam said he’d been cold too and that the assistant scoutmaster, a small man, had crawled into his sleeping bag. He told Sam he would keep him warm.
What he described was beyond my comprehension. I knew that what Sam said the assistant scoutmaster had done to him was weird, but was it wrong? None of us knew. Not even Sam.
I soon decided I liked sports better than scouting. If I saw Sam again, I don’t remember. I saw the assistant scoutmaster once more at a big awards dinner. I stayed as far away from him as possible.
At unpredictable moments Sam comes to mind but I have not tried to find him. I assume he wouldn’t want to discuss what happened 60 years ago. I could be wrong.
The difference between a memory and a scar is less than I once imagined. Both persist. I believe in the Child Victims Act. If Sam ever wanted me to testify on his behalf in a lawsuit, I would be honored to do so.