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ANOTHER VIEW | Albany Times Union

Another view: Child Victims Act provided justice, but not for all

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New York

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to reporters about legislation passed during a special legislative session on July 1.

The landmark legislation left behind untold numbers of people whose cases aren’t tied to deep-pocketed institutions.

The massive judgment awarded to a 65-year-old woman for the abuse she suffered decades ago is a success of the Child Victims Act. But the likelihood that she will never collect it is a failure of the landmark legislation, too.

Certainly, without the law passed in 2019, which temporarily allowed victims to file civil lawsuits against alleged abusers, Patricia Egan would have had no legal recourse for the years of horrific abuse that started when she was 11 and living in Schenectady. Like thousands of others who allege childhood abuse, Ms. Egan was blocked by criminal and civil statutes of limitations until the legislation provided a path to justice.

But Ms. Egan’s case also illustrates the limitations of the Child Victims Act. Though she was awarded a nearly $19 million judgment, it is not at all certain she will receive a penny from her abuser, a former brother-in-law who appears to have few assets. Moreover, Ms. Egan was among the thousands of victims who struggled to find an attorney willing to take their cases because their abusers were not connected to deep-pocketed institutions.

Nearly all of the Child Victims Act lawsuits targeted institutions such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts or local school systems, even though it is widely accepted that the overwhelming majority of childhood sexual abuse is committed by family members, friends of the family or neighbors. Only about one percent of Child Victims Act lawsuits were filed against private individuals.

The law, then, provided justice for some but not for all. That is why we have advocated for the creation of a fund that would benefit those for whom no payout is possible, even though their claims to justice are just as valid and their abuse just as devastating as that suffered by victims whose abusers are tied to institutions.

To be clear, financial compensation can’t make up for the lasting damage done by abuse; the Child Victims Act has never really been about money. Indeed, Ms. Egan, gratified by the verdict and her day in court, said her lawsuit was about holding her alleged abuser accountable and providing hope for other survivors. By those measures, it succeeded.

The problem, though, is that the state Legislature’s failure to create a fund for survivors meant that many other worthwhile cases never made it to court, which in turn means many abusers were not held to account. With the window created by the act now closed, it is possible they never will.

Lawmakers, however, could still establish a pool of money, perhaps funded by fines assessed against abusers convicted of offenses against children, that would benefit Ms. Egan and similarly situated accusers who have won in court. Lawmakers could also reopen the Child Victims Act window for those who say they were abused by private individuals.

Both moves would help complete the original mission of the Child Victims Act and would acknowledge that one set of victims is not more worthy than others — that abuse is abuse, and pain is pain, no matter who is responsible for the torment. There are still victims who deserve their shot at justice.

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