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States move to ease restrictions on child sex-abuse lawsuits

NEW YORK (AP) — In many states across the U.S., victims of long-ago child sex-abuse have been lobbying for years, often in vain, to change statute of limitation laws that thwart their quest for justice. This year seems sure to produce some breakthroughs, due in part to the midterm election results and recent disclosures about abuse by Roman Catholic priests.

New York state is Exhibit A. The Democrats' takeover of the formerly Republican-controlled Senate seems almost certain to produce a more victim-friendly policy in place of one of the nation's most restrictive laws.

Prospects are considered good for similar changes in Rhode Island and New Jersey, and the issue will be raised in Pennsylvania — which became the epicenter of the current abuse crisis in August when a grand jury accused some 300 Catholic priests of abusing more than 1,000 children over seven decades.

Abuse survivors and their allies are once again proposing a two-year window for now-adult victims to sue perpetrators and institutions over claims that would otherwise be barred by time limits. That provision was approved by the Pennsylvania House last year but rejected by the top Republican in the Senate.

Nationwide, only a handful of states — including California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii — have created these "lookback windows" enabling victims to file civil lawsuits against institutions such as churches and youth groups that bore some responsibility for the abuse. California's one-year window opened in 2003, leading to hundreds of civil actions and more than $1 billion in payouts by the Catholic church; activists and legislators in California hope to create a new lookback window this year.

In California, Minnesota and Delaware, large payouts prompted several dioceses to file for bankruptcy. The Catholic Church, the insurance industry and the Boy Scouts of America have lobbied vigorously against efforts to create lookback windows in other states.

University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton, an expert on statute-of-limitations reforms, predicts that more states will provide windows despite the vociferous lobbying. She says the Pennsylvania grand jury report has changed the dynamics of the debate, increasing pressure on lawmakers to take victim-friendly actions.

"Before, people were giving the bishops the benefit of the doubt, but this time there was outrage," said Hamilton, the CEO of Child USA, a think tank focused on preventing child abuse. "Politicians now understand that people are behind the victims."

In New York, victim advocacy groups and their allies in the Legislature have tried for a dozen years to loosen the statute of limitations. Last year, the legislature's Democratic-controlled lower chamber overwhelmingly approved the long-stymied Child Victims Act, which would extend the time frames for pursuing civil and criminal cases in the future, and create a one-year window allowing victims to sue over past abuse claims. Senate Republicans blocked the bill from getting a vote and suggested alternatives that lacked the lookback window.

In November, Democrats gained control of the Senate, and the measure is now expected to pass with the window included. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he'll include the act in the state budget, due in April, if a separate measure doesn't pass before then.

Among those pleased by the change is Brian Toale, 65, who has written about being abused in the 1970s by the adult adviser to the radio club at his Catholic high school on Long Island. Toale, who lives in New York City, underwent years of therapy and still participates in a weekly 12-step program with other abuse victims, including some who still don't speak publicly about their experience.

Toale is unsure whether the Child Victims Act would bring him any compensation or formal apology from the Catholic diocese and religious order that had jurisdiction over his high school. But he hopes that enactment would encourage more victims to come forward.

"When people do tell their stories and expose their abuser, it's so helpful," he said. The New York Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops, has lobbied vigorously against the lookback window in the past, arguing that it would "force institutions to defend alleged conduct decades ago about which they have no knowledge."

However, Catholic Conference spokesman Dennis Poust said Wednesday that the church would drop its opposition to a bill containing a lookback window if it were assured that public entities, including schools, also became targets for retroactive claims.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, says the church is meeting its obligations to victims through a compensation program launched in 2016 that has paid out more than $200 million to more than 1,000 individuals.

"It insures fair and reasonable compensation; and prevents the real possibility — as has happened elsewhere — of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches, that provide essential services in education, charity and health care," Dolan wrote in a recent newspaper column.

Similar compensation programs are being set up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but victim advocates say the programs — unlike civil lawsuits — fail to ensure that there is accountability and full disclosure on the church's part.

"The right thing to do is come clean, open the books and know sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Michael Polenberg of Safe Horizon, a New York City nonprofit serving victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. Mark Rozzi, who has spoken about being abused by a priest as a 13-year-old, will help lead a renewed effort this year to give victims of child sex abuse a two-year window to sue perpetrators and institutions over claims that would otherwise be barred. However, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati maintains that the retroactive provision violates the state constitution, and says the Catholic church's planned compensation programs will be an adequate response.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who oversaw the grand jury investigation, will be part of the alliance pressing Scarnati to allow a vote on the measure. Shapiro's grand jury probe may have changed the political dynamics in neighboring New Jersey, where Sen. Joe Vitale has been fighting since 2002 to ease statute-of-limitations restrictions.

Vitale says the Pennsylvania report prompted many of his colleagues to become co-sponsors of his bill offering sex-abuse victims more time to bring civil claims and allowing lawsuits that were dismissed because of the time limits to be refiled. Under current law, adults victimized as juveniles have only two years to file a civil suit from the time they first realize the sexual abuse damaged them.

In California, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has reintroduced a bill that would create a new three-year lookback window for victims who were unable to take advantage of the one-year window in 2003. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Gonzalez' measure last year; she is hopeful that the new governor, Gavin Newsom, will be more receptive.

"Until you make it hurt, people don't change behavior," Gonzalez said.

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