Lobbying Intensifies, but Fate of Sex Abuse Bill Is Up in the Air
By PAUL VITELLO • NY Times
ALBANY — The political education of Beth McCabe began a few years ago, when she took her turn at the microphone here during a Senate committee hearing on childhood sexual abuse.
As Ms. McCabe, a consultant for nonprofit groups, testified about being abused as a 10-year-old, and saw the pained reaction of elected officials in the hushed room, she had a kind of epiphany, she said: that maybe her personal story — painful and private for so many years — would have the power to change public policy.
It was a moment of pure insight, common to many of the volunteer advocates who have been trawling the Capitol hallways for months, lobbying for a bill that would permit adults to file suit over childhood sexual abuse that may have occurred long ago.
But like many pure insights about politics, it has been tempered and tested by the sausage-making realities of the legislative process.
The bill has been amended twice in recent weeks to mollify opponents, and one of those amendments effectively cut Ms. McCabe out by setting an age limit of 53 for those who could file suits. She is 60.
It has been scheduled for a vote in the Assembly three times in the last week, and postponed at the last minute three times. A chaotic leadership battle in the Senate is partly to blame. Intense lobbying against the bill by the Catholic Church and some Orthodox Jewish groups has played a part, too: Lawmakers backing the legislation have defected, then been re-enlisted by the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, in middle-of-the-night meetings.
And almost every day for the last few weeks, Ms. McCabe and others like her have been on hand to buttonhole legislators in hallways, spend another night in a hotel and go home exhausted the next day to catch up on work.
“I had no idea it could get so complicated and weird,” Ms. McCabe said Thursday.
Like Tim Echausse, 41, an executive recruiter from Long Island, and Mark Lyman, 45, a drug abuse counselor in Albany, Ms. McCabe has taken time off from her job and spent many nights away from her home in Canton, Conn., in pursuit of what might at first glance seem a small and rather technical redress of the law: a one-year suspension of the statute of limitations on filing childhood sex abuse lawsuits, and a permanent increase in the time allowed for filing such suits.
The law allows such suits to be filed within five years after a victim turns 18. The new bill, known as the Child Victims Act, would extend that to 10 years.
In fact, opening the one-year window on the statute of limitations represents $1 billion in potential claims, according to lawyers and spokesmen for the Roman Catholic dioceses of New York, which have said they expected to be the main targets.
The church has fought back, with full-time lobbying by the Albany-based Catholic Conference. Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced a competing bill that eliminated the one-year window for filing older claims.
Partly in response to that, Assemblywoman Markey amended her bill to set 53 as the age limit for plaintiffs — a move that cost the bill its prime sponsor in the Senate, Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan.
Early this week, Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson agreed to replace him as the bill’s Senate sponsor — a major lift added to her already heavy workload as prime sponsor of bills on domestic violence and no-fault divorce.
And all the effort for the Child Victims Act could be rendered moot by the continuing state of paralysis in the Senate.
Ms. Markey conceded that her bill, which the Assembly passed in three consecutive years without amendment, was struggling this year for the same reason that it sailed through earlier: “It did not really have a chance of becoming law before, and now it does,” she said.
It needs 76 votes to pass in the Assembly, she said. “And as of this hour,” she said a little after noon on Thursday, “I have 77.”
But the threat to that margin has intensified in recent days. Ms. Markey’s other amendment — closing a loophole in municipal law to make public institutions just as liable as private or religious ones are under her bill — has drawn fire from various municipal associations.
The state School Boards Association, the Conference of Mayors, the state Association of Counties and the state Council of School Superintendents have issued memos in opposition.
The bill’s proponents have stepped up their tactics, too. On Thursday, lawyers appeared on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan to announce they had filed a sex abuse lawsuit on behalf of Richard P. Green, a nephew of New York’s former archbishop, Cardinal John J. O’Connor. They said Mr. Green, 31, had been molested by a priest at a Pennsylvania high school in the early 1990s.
The priest has since died, but the suit names as defendants the priest’s religious order and a diocese in Delaware, which has a law similar to Ms. Markey’s bill.
“It’s our client’s hope that the legislators keep this in mind,” said one Mr. Green’s lawyers, John Manly, referring to Albany lawmakers, who could clear the way for other victims like Mr. Green to file a lawsuit.
For her part, Ms. McCabe said the lobbying in Albany had been “a learning experience.”
“There are Assembly and Senate members who I have talked to at length twice or more. Some of them have given me a lot of their time, asked a lot of questions in a very thoughtful way.
“And still,” she added, “I have no idea what they will do.”
Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.
[Hat Tip: Dr. R-F.]