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Child Victims Act

Michael Polenberg, vice president of Safe Horizon, surrounded by New York legislators, advocates and victims of child molestation, speaks in favor of legislation authorizing the Child Victims Act at the state Capitol in Albany on Monday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he supports the bill, which would extend the statute of limitations on child molestation to give victims more time to seek justice. 

After more than a decade of trying, New York legislators on Monday finally passed the Child Victims Act to bolster protections for child sex abuse survivors. 

The state Senate unanimously passed the bill and the state Assembly followed with a bipartisan vote of 130-3. The measure now goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will sign it into law.

The legislation extends the criminal statute of limitation for child sex abuse offenses by allowing victims until they are 28 to pursue felony charges and age 25 for misdemeanor charges. This is a change from existing state law, which gives victims five years after their 18th birthday to press charges. 

The Child Victims Act also raises the statute of limitations for civil actions. Under the new provision, survivors have until age 55 to file lawsuits against their abusers. 

A one-year "look-back" provision is included in the bill for past victims of child sex abuse. This will allow survivors to pursue civil actions for abuse that already occurred. The one-year window won't begin immediately. There is a six-month period after the bill is signed into law before the look-back provision commences. 

The legislation also allows claims against private and public institutions, such as churches, schools and organizations. And judges will be trained on how to properly handle child sex abuse cases. 

"The Child Victims Act opens a door for survivors and users in an opportunity for healing," said Brian Toale, a child sex abuse survivor. "Today we enter a time when survivors can no longer be treated differently than other crime victims and made to stare at a courtroom door that until now could be opened by anyone but them." 

Passage of the Child Victims Act comes more than a decade after the bill was first introduced in the state Legislature. The Democratic-led state Assembly passed the bill on several occasions, but it was blocked in the state Senate. Some Republican senators raised concerns with the one-year look-back provision and an earlier version of the bill that appeared to prevent claims against schools and other public institutions. 

There were powerful opponents, too. The Catholic Church long opposed the bill, mainly due to concerns over which institutions would be subject to claims. Catholic bishops reversed their position when the bill was revised. 

With survivors in the gallery for the vote, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins expressed disappointment that they had to spend years advocating for passage of the bill. After Democrats won control of the Senate last fall and Stewart-Cousins became majority leader, the Child Victims Act was a top legislative priority. 

"We apologize for making you wait so long," Stewart-Cousins said.

Before the votes, advocates rallied at the state Capitol. Cuomo met with child sex abuse survivors and reiterated his support of the bill. 

Cuomo has shown his support for the Child Victims Act by including it in his executive budget proposals. He included the bill in his proposed budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. 

"Yes, there's going to be court cases and a look-back and a window, et cetera," Cuomo said. "But to me that's all a means to the end. The end was do justice, acknowledge this. Acknowledge the harm. Acknowledge that I was a victim. Acknowledge that the authority was abused. And it has taken us a number of years to get here, but we got here because of you and your tenacity." 

The bill, as the vote count suggests, didn't generate a lot of disagreement. Senate Republicans attempted to amend the legislation by eliminating the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases. While Democrats seemed open to the idea, they also questioned why the proposal was brought now and not when the GOP controlled the state Senate. 

The floor debates in the state Assembly and Senate also led to a handful of emotional moments. Four lawmakers — three assemblywomen and one state senator — shared that they were sexually abused. 

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi revealed she was sexually abused. Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou said she was 13 when she was sexually abused by a teacher. 

"I can still smell him," Niou said as she recounted her experience. 

Two other lawmakers, Assemblywomen Rodneyse Bichotte and Catalina Cruz, also revealed that they were sexually abused as children. Bichotte's abuser was a pastor. Cruz's was a family member. 

For Cruz, it was the first time she publicly revealed that she was abused as a child. She told the story prior to voting for the Child Victims Act. 

"This is about the safety of little boys and little girls everywhere," she said. 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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