The New York attorney general’s new investigation into clergy sex abuse allegations in the Roman Catholic Church could be massive, delving into confidential church files in a state where hundreds of people have already made claims through programs run by the church itself.
But few criminal cases or lawsuits may come out of the inquiry, whatever its findings. New York has some of the nation’s strictest time limits on taking child sex abuse claims to civil or criminal courts. A years long campaign to extend the timeframe hasn’t passed the Legislature.
And even if it succeeds, at least 375 people who have settled abuse claims through church-run compensation programs waived any right to sue.
Still, investigations by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and her colleagues in several other states could be valuable to victims just by bringing information to light, says Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania legal expert on child sexual abuse and the founder of CHILD USA, an advocacy group.
“It’s a way of educating the public on how severe the problem is” and informing lawmakers’ debates on extending legal time limits, she says. “The public education and the public accountability is what we need, so there’s value in (the investigations). But there’s not a straight line to justice for the victims.”
New York and New Jersey launched new investigations Thursday into the church’s handling of sexual misconduct claims against clergy. Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri also have started inquiries in the three weeks since a Pennsylvania grand jury report found that since the 1940s, about 300 Catholic priests had abused a total of more than 1,000 children statewide.
The report, which accused senior church officials of systematically covering up the abuse, reignited outrage and national discussion of how the church has dealt with the issue. But it yielded new criminal charges against just two priests because of legal time clocks.
In Pennsylvania, prosecutors have until a child sex abuse accuser’s 50th birthday to file charges; accusers have until their 30th birthdays to sue.
New York’s limits are tighter: the accuser’s 23rd birthday, in both civil and criminal cases. There’s no time limit for prosecuting some major child sex crimes, but only if they occurred after 2000.
A measure that would raise the age for future cases – and open a one-year window for lawsuits that have been barred by the current age limits – is at an impasse amid opposition from the church, as well as other large institutions.
They fault the proposal for not including public schools or other public institutions, and they say opening that “look-back window” could be financially devastating: Catholic dioceses paid $1.2 billion in legal settlements after a similar law passed in California in 2002.
The New York proposal, called the Child Victims Act, has passed the Democratic-majority state Assembly, and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the idea. But it has been blocked from a vote by the Senate’s Republican leaders. They have broached a plan to address future age limits only.
Steve Jimenez, a leading advocate for the Child Victims Act, said the attorney general’s new civil investigation makes the legislation all the more urgent.
“We must change the law,” he said. “And we will not give up until we do.”
Jimenez, who says a Roman Catholic brother repeatedly assaulted him when he was a child attending Catholic school in Brooklyn, said he and other supporters will be back in Albany when lawmakers reconvene in January to keep up the pressure. Underwood also has urged the Legislature to pass the law.
But it’s unclear how willing Senate leaders are to budge. Senate GOP spokeswoman Candice Giove noted Friday that Republicans have put forward their own proposals on the issue, “and we look forward to holding meaningful conversations that finally get results.”
Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said that while the investigation may fuel calls to allow lawsuits over decades-old claims, the archdiocese established its own, private compensation program “because it was the right thing to do.”
The 278 people who have received a total of nearly $59.8 million through the program waived their right to sue, though they are free to speak about their experiences if they choose.
A similar compensation program in the Diocese of Albany has provided over $9 million in direct compensation and counseling assistance to about 100 people, according to spokeswoman Mary DeTurris Poust.
In March, the Diocese of Buffalo released a list of 42 priests facing sex abuse allegations.
Church leaders have vowed to work with Underwood in her investigation.