When Ana Wagner was nine years old, she was sexually abused by her father’s best friend, starting a pattern that would repeat for the next three years. It’s been two decades, but she still has trouble talking about it.
“I was a very nerdy little nine-year-old,” she told the Voice, exhaling shakily. “And puny. I was the shortest in my school for my grade.” Twenty years went by before Wagner summoned the strength to report her abuser to police, marching into a precinct house to file a report. But by then it was too late.
At that point, Wagner was thirty-two. As it stands, New York State law gives victims only until the age of twenty-three — five years after their eighteenth birthday — to either bring criminal charges or file a suit. While most other states gradually pushed back their statutes of limitations, New York never did, making its policies among the most restrictive in the country.
A typical sex offender molests an average of 117 children in his or her lifetime, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The idea that Wagner’s abuser is still out there, hurting other children, haunts her every day. “That guilt, I live with it, because I’m just one,” she said. “So there’s, like, 116 other people. Maybe I could have prevented 100.”
Wagner is a forceful proponent of the Child Victims Act, a bill first proposed in 2006 that she and many others are desperately hoping will pass the state’s legislature before its session ends on June 21.
The premise of the bill is simple, though like so many things forged in the fires of Albany, its actual text is needlessly complex. In essence, the CVA would lengthen the statutes of limitations for victims to seek justice against those who sexually abused them as children, with one version of the bill extending the deadline for a civil suit to fifty years.
This seems like a clear improvement to state Democrats, to victims, and to anyone else who understands that it can take years to fully process a traumatic event, especially one suffered in childhood. Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to prioritize the Child Victims Act earlier this year, and though it’s unclear whether he will make good on his word, Wagner, who has personally met with the governor to push the bill, said he seemed to relate to the cause.
“I think he understands that it’s something that shadows a victim for life, and you’re just wondering when it’s going to come back or when it’s going to haunt you again,” she said.
Cuomo’s support could be instrumental in pushing the CVA into law, but what’s keeping it in limbo are the powerful institutions that would have to reckon with victims coming forward after several decades. Both the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church have been vociferous in their opposition.
Most recently, the Boy Scouts retained the services of former state senator Craig Johnson to fight the bill, shelling out $12,500 per month to his lobbying firm. Reached for comment, the organization confirmed only that Johnson was working with it “on a variety of legislative matters in New York that impact youth-serving and nonprofit organizations,” including the CVA.
The bill’s most formidable foe, though, is the Catholic Church.
Dennis Poust, the director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, insists it’s not that the church wants to hobble victims from taking legal action against child molesters. The issue, he said, is with a facet of the bill called the “look-back window,” which would give survivors over the age of twenty-three — those currently unable to take action — one year after the passage of the CVA to bring civil suits against their tormentors. Though similar statutes have passed in seven other states, Poust said that the cost of litigating such cases is impractical in New York.
“You can go back sixty or seventy years, and the ability to defend claims from that long ago is very difficult,” Poust told the Voice. “There are no caps in terms of monetary damages. We think it will hinder the ability to provide services to people today.” According to Poust, the Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental provider of human services in New York, with a hand in running everything from homeless shelters to food programs. He even suggested that the bill, if passed, has the potential to bankrupt entire school districts. “That money comes from somewhere,” he said, adding that the archdiocese in California has paid out more than a billion dollars to roughly 900 victims, at an average of $1.3 million each.
Democratic lawmakers counter that the look-back window is an essential component of the bill.
“Lifting the statute of limitations without the look-back window is like giving someone ice in winter,” said Brad Hoylman, the bill’s main sponsor in the state senate. Hoylman pointed out that California, one of the seven states to have passed laws with look-back windows, has simply not seen the “massive bankruptcies by institutions” that Poust claims to fear.
“The bigger question is, is this primarily a financial consideration?” Hoylman asked. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the bank accounts of groups that may have harbored abusers.”
In New York, to date, 118 abuse victims have accepted compensation from the Catholic Church, and none have declined, said Joe Zwilling, the Archdiocese of New York’s communications director. Around 20 have yet to decide; their delay might be due to the church’s money coming with an important caveat: Claimants must promise not to take any further legal action against the archdiocese, meaning the crimes remain off the books and offenders will face no legal consequences. Zwilling would not reveal how much money the church has paid out.
The Catholic Church has funded a compensation program by mortgaging some of its numerous real estate properties. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of New York revealed plans to take out a $100 million mortgage on the land it owns under Manhattan’s Lotte New York Palace Hotel, which sits across Madison Avenue from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Marci Hamilton, the CEO of the Pennsylvania-based advocacy organization Child USA, called Poust’s assertion that lawsuits would result in a loss of services “an outright lie,” particularly since, she says, around 80 percent of those touted services are subsidized by the state and federal governments.
“I’ve been involved in every state where there has been a window,” she said. “The bankruptcy argument is just cynical.”
The church may claim to be money-poor, but it remains a powerful institution that no elected official wants for an enemy. Linda Rosenthal, the CVA’s sponsor in the assembly, points out that entities like the church can have an outsize influence on re-election campaigns.
“No one wants to have a giant group against them,” she said. The late Vito Lopez, for example, enjoyed a cozy relationship with Brooklyn bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and was also a vigorous opponent of the bill. It’s troubling that power-hungry politicians can so ably scuttle what should be black-and-white legislation, she said.
“People were wronged — seriously, grievously wronged,” Rosenthal added. “There’s no excuse.”
In the eleven years since the measure was introduced, support for the CVA has increased along with public awareness of the impact of child sexual abuse, bolstered by films like Spotlight and advocacy by groups like SNAP (the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).
Rosenthal noted that as more survivors have approached their legislators directly, opposition is eroding.
“Lives have been destroyed,” she said. “It’s truly unfair that they have no recourse to get justice.”
With two weeks left in the legislative session, Cuomo has plenty of time to register his support, likely in the form of a program bill that would force the senate’s hand. The CVA has long enjoyed widespread support in the assembly, but it has been repeatedly stalled by Republicans who refuse to allow it to move to committee. Cuomo’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who has historically led opposition to the CVA’s passage, did not respond to a request for comment.
Nevertheless, Rosenthal said, two weeks is an eternity in Albany. “It would be true leadership for [Cuomo] to not just say that he’s for it, but to actually produce a result,” she said. “There’s plenty of time for him to step up and work with us to get it done.”