New York’s history-making Child Victims Act is a victory for sexual abuse survivors in the face of—and in response to—decades of cover-up and inactivity by powerful institutions. The new law allows sexual abuse survivors more time to seek justice and healing while holding enabling institutions accountable and pressuring them to finally be transparent and safe.
The New York Child Victims Act comes in the midst of a head-spinning era of sexual abuse prevention activity, public pressure and publicity in which we read about something new and important nearly every day. In just the last year, we have witnessed the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic clergy child sexual abuse, which inspired prosecutors across the United States to investigate dioceses and federal prosecutors to investigate Catholic clergy abuse; dioceses across the country reluctantly releasing lists of credibly accused clergy; fallout from the Larry Nassar, Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson scandals; the Southern Baptist clergy abuse scandal; the ongoing #MeToo revelations, and the list goes on. It’s hard to keep up with the tidal wave of events that have engulfed the country.
This week in Rome starting February 21, Pope Francis is holding an “unprecedented” summit on sexual abuse for presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences. The pope said the event is intended to help increase bishops’ awareness of the suffering of survivors and protocols for handling sexual abuse complaints. Given the hierarchy’s history of splashy events and public relations announcements on handling its clergy sexual abuse problem, while actually doing very little to help survivors or protect kids, we are skeptical of the conference’s outcome. The pope himself is already trying to lower expectations for the summit.
“Church leaders have been apologizing for the sin—and crime—of sexual abuse for decades,” writes Emma Green in an in-depth look at the Catholic Church abuse crisis in The Atlantic. “Yet for all the documents promulgated and commissions convened, for all the years of regret and reforms, the Church is here again, in full crisis mode, facing shocked outrage from parishioners and the public. The past year has brought a nonstop series of devastating allegations, gaffes by top bishops and the pope, and delays in addressing abuse revelations that have recently come to light in news reports and other investigations. Frequently, the Catholic hierarchy has responded with ineptitude and infighting. The unfortunate effect is that bishops, rather than survivors, have become the center of the story.”
Green adds that, “The moral failings of the global Catholic Church, in creating and covering up abuse-prone environments for young children, are still unfolding.” She notes that there are survivors who have yet to receive acknowledgement, perpetrators who have not been publicly named by Church leaders, and bishops who refuse to cooperate with law enforcement.
“The focus on the victims, the survivors, is the way out for the Church,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley told Green
How true. We’ll see if this week’s summit results in any progress. Meanwhile, survivors are seeking healing and justice under the New York Child Victims Act and similar legislation—with a two-year window—is being seriously considered in New Jersey, where the governor and legislative leaders have voiced their support. Laws like the Child Victims Act are the direct result of courageous survivors coming forward and seeking justice and healing denied to them for decades. Similar laws are being considered in other states as well.
We are witnessing in real time at dizzying speed, survivors demanding justice and healing, and they won’t be denied.