By PAUL VITELLO • New York TimesFor four years, advocates for sexually abused children had fought a battle in the New York Legislature to open a legal window that would allow victims to file lawsuits against predators long after the statute of limitations had expired.
“We knew we didn’t have the votes, but we felt it was important to keep it on the public agenda,” said Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democratic senator from the Bronx and Westchester, and a sponsor of the Child Abuse Act.
Though the bill died each year, it passed in the Assembly three timesand earned the support of two governors. And the renewed attention to sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church augured well for the cause this year.
Yet on Wednesday, in its fifth year on the legislative calendar, the bill, known as the Child Victims Act, was defeated in a Senate committee in the first vote on the measure this session.
Legislators on both sides agreed that the 9-to-6 vote by the panel, the Senate Codes Committee, had doomed the legislation for the remainder of the session. They offered different perspectives, however, on the vote’s larger meaning for the bill, which proposes a one-time, one-year suspension of the statute of limitations for sex abuse lawsuits.
“We knew we didn’t have the votes, but we felt it was important to keep it on the public agenda,” said State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County and who is the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. “Whether it is adopted this year or next year is less important than reminding victims that there are people out here trying to bring justice for them.”
Dennis Poust, the communications director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said the vote represented an emerging consensus that time limits on legal liability were an important civil rights protection. The conference is the policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, the bill’s most formidable opponents.
“You cannot ask institutions to take responsibility for the failures of a few individuals whose actions took place 40 and 50 years ago,” Mr. Poust said.
Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, a Queens Democrat who wrote the legislation and has been its chief advocate, said that in one sense the vote on Wednesday represented progress. “Our bill has never even come to a vote before in the Senate,” she said. “So we feel this was an important step.”
Since it was first introduced in the 2006-7 session, the Child Victims Act has been fervently opposed by the Catholic Church and several Orthodox Jewish groups, which saw potentially devastating financial implications in opening an opportunity for victims, regardless of age, to bring lawsuits for sexual abuse suffered in childhood.
Last year, in an attempt to blunt complaints from the religious groups that they were being singled out, the bill was amended to make public institutions like schools equally liable.
That amendment did not win any new support for the bill, but it earned the opposition of powerful groups like the New York State School Boards Association, the New York Council of School Superintendents, the New York Association of Counties and the New York Conference of Mayors.
Still, some advocates for abuse victims had expressed hope before Wednesday that recent revelations about leniency shown by high Roman Catholic officials — including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI — to abusive priests might attract new public support for the legislation.
“I think it actually did increase public support, but that does not always translate into legislative remedy,” said David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Mr. Clohessy said the vote ended efforts this year in three states to pass laws suspending the statute of limitations for a limited period in sex abuse cases. Similar bills have already been defeated in Arizona and Wisconsin.
California and Delaware are the only states to have adopted such legislation, though similar laws have been proposed in about 15 states since 2002, he said.
On Wednesday, all seven Republicans on the Codes Committee and two of the nine Democrats voted no. Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx and Westchester, one of the Democrats who opposed the measure, said he doubted that exposing institutions to lawsuits would solve the problem of sex abuse by their employees.
Instead, he said, he had proposed a law to remove the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution of individuals accused of abusing minors. “I want to address the problem, but not civilly,” he said.
The other Democrat who voted no was Senator Neil D. Breslin of Albany. Senator Shirley L. Huntley, a Democrat from Queens, voted “no recommendation.”