By David Brand
With the Child Victims Act now law in New York State, advocates and attorneys for survivors of clergy sexual abuse are stepping up demands for accountability through court settlements and a statewide forum where survivors can face church leaders.
Starting in August, the new law will open a one-year window that enables survivors of sexual abuse to take civil action, even if the statute of limitations has expired. Days after the conclusion of a sexual abuse summit at the Vatican, survivors’ advocates have also called for New York Catholic church leaders to host their own summit and announce concrete policy actions here in the state.
“They miss the boat when they do not take into account and ignore the voices of survivors, and don’t make them the focus of change. That’s what the summit would be about,” said attorney Michelle Simpson-Tuegel, who has represented 70 survivors of clergy sexual abuse, as well as survivors of U.S. Gymnastics physician Larry Nasser. “There are so many survivors impacted in the state of New York and they can discuss it among themselves, but [a forum with the church] is where it’s really going to create change.”
Pope Francis told attendees at the Vatican conference that victims deserve “concrete and efficient” actions.
“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” he said.
The Vatican summit was criticized for not arriving at any tangible actions, however.
Simpson-Tuegel said dioceses in New York should enact a stronger zero tolerance policy and automatically dismiss anyone credibly accused of abusing a child. She said churches and Catholic schools should more proactively address abuse and educate parishioners.
Manhattan resident Rafael Mendoza, 37, grew up in Queens and said he was abused by a guidance counselor, who was also a priest, at his Catholic high school.
“We are calling for zero tolerance within the Church for members of the clergy who abuse minors and for those who cover up this abuse,” Mendoza said in a statement. “The Church has failed to protect children and we will no longer be silent to the rampant and widespread abuse that continues to take place.”
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York said the diocese already shares allegations of abuse with local district attorneys but does not immediately fire the priest or clergy member to not spoil the prosecutors’ investigation.
“When we receive an allegation of abuse against a priest or deacon of the archdiocese, we immediately turn that allegation over to the appropriate district attorney,” the spokesperson said. “Often, the district attorney will request that we do nothing while they conduct an initial investigation to see if there is a prosecutable crime; they do not want us to take action at that stage, so as not to ‘tip off’ the priest or deacon, and thus possibly impeding their investigation.”
If the DA decides there is not a case, the issue is returned to the church.
“If it is possible that the abuse could have occurred — that is, the priest was assigned to the parish or school at the time that the abuse was alleged to have occurred, for instance — then the priest or deacon is removed from ministry, and the parish/school where he is serving is notified,” the spokesperson said. “The priest remains barred from ministry while the matter is investigated by outside, professional investigators (all former federal agents), and the entire matter is considered by our Lay Review Board.”
If the Lay Review Board decides that the case is substantiated, they inform the cardinal who fires the priest.
“The priest is permanently removed from ministry, and the priest or deacon’s former assignments are notified, with a request that anyone who has a complaint should contact the DA, as well as our Victims Assistance Coordinator and the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, if they so choose,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the Archdiocese performs background checks on all clergy, employees and volunteers and conducts training to identify signs of abuse.
Last month, the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, released the names of 108 clergy members “credibly” accused of sexual abuse. A few days later, survivors named 112 clergy members from the Archdiocese of New York, who they say molested and abused them when they were children. In January, the Jesuit order also revealed the names of 50 clergy members credibly accused of abuse. Many of those Jesuits worked at New York City’s Catholic schools.
Simpson-Tuegel said the lists were a good “first step” but added that the Child Victims Act will force abusers and the institutions that employed or protected them to be held more publicly accountable while exposing patterns of abuse.
“The church has had victims compensation programs for years,” she said. “They hand a little compensation over to people but survivors don’t get to demand, ‘Why did this happen to me? How did this happen to me? How many times had this priest been moved around, who had reported it before they got to me or to my brother?”
After more than a decade of failed bills, the Child Victims Act passed the state Senate unanimously in January. The bill also passed the Assembly, which had voted in favor of the bill on several previous occasions. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act into law on Feb. 14.
“The Child Victims Act is critical because now people know about this new legal pathway so hopefully more survivors will come forward and find closure they didn’t think they could,” Simpson-Tuegel said.
The bill faced opposition from the Catholic church as well as the Boy Scouts of America and the insurance industry before it finally passed the new Democratic majority in the senate.
Former Queens Assemblymember Margaret Markey stood behind Cuomo at the bill signing. Markey had made it her mission to pass a version of the bill, motivated, as the New York Times, reported, by her own son’s experience as a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest. Markey represented District 30 from 1999 to 2016 and introduced the first version of the bill in 2006.
“Since so many abused children are not able to come to grips with what has happened to them until much later in life,” she said in 2015. “It is the victims who suffer the most as a result of our state’s archaic statute of limitations for these offenses.”