Perhaps people have forgotten, but St. Patrick’s Day is a religious day, of special significance to Catholics. It is a memorial of the great missionary saint who evangelized Ireland for the Faith. It is especially important to us Catholics of New York — those of Irish descent like me and all others — because St. Patrick is the patron saint, and thus the spiritual guardian, of our Archdiocese.
The religious nature of the day was obviously lost on the New York State Assembly. In one of the most stunning snubs directed towards the Church in recent memory, the Codes Committee of the Assembly casually approved a bill yesterday that is a direct attack on the Church.
The bill in question is a revision of the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases. For the non-laywers among us, the statute of limitations imposes a time limit during which a civil lawsuit or a criminal case can be brought. It is an ancient and fundamental part of our legal system, designed to ensure that potential defendants are treated fairly. The rationale is based on the recognition that over time, memories fade, evidence is lost, witnesses die or disappear, and it is fundamentally unfair to require a person to defend themselves against an old, stale cases. The reality is that it is impossible for people to defend themselves against claims that arise from alleged offenses that took place decades ago.
This is settled law, and the idea of retroactively changing the statute of limitations for a civil offense would have been unthinkable until a few years ago. Then the clerical sex abuse crisis came to light. Many of the cases of abuse date back 20, 30, 40 or more years. As heinous as the crimes were, the statute of limitations barred civil lawsutis from being brought in many of the cases.
In response, bills have been proposed in a number of states to overturn the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases, for instance by granting a one-year window of opportunity for people to bring lawsuits that would otherwise have been time-bound. One such bill has been introduced here in New York, sponsored by Assembly Member Margaret Markey of Queens.
There are a number of problems with this bill. First, it violates a basic principle of fairness by changing the rules after the fact. Plus, it is discriminatory — it leaves government agencies exempt from being sued — (such as public schools, in which sexual abuse is not exactly unknown. Instead, it puts a lawsuit target sign on private institutions, like the Church. In effect, it says that some organizations are worthy of protection under the law, and others are fair game for trial lawyers. In reality, this is clearly aimed at the Catholic Church.
Even worse, it will do absolutely nothing to protect children, since it only looks backwards at old cases. Since the beginning of the sex abuse crisis, the Church has done more than any other institution to establish programs to ensure the safety of children. This bill does nothing to further that goal. No child will be made safer as a result of this bill. None.
Make no mistake — the potential consequences for the Church are devastating. In California, a similar bill was passed, and virtually all the lawsuits were directed at the Church. In part because of the difficulty of litigating so many old cases (remember the original rationale of the statute of limitations?), the Church had to pay upwards of a billion dollars in settlements. And you should know that 40% of that money went nowhere near the victims — it went to the trial lawyers who brought the cases.
The Church has made clear that we consider this bill to be a direct attack against our institutions, and that it is a violation of the fundamental principles of justice. The financial impact on our parishes, schools and charitable entities will be severe, and many may have to close.
So what did the New York State Assembly do, when faced with such a significant and contentious bill? Why, they had a mock hearing in the Codes Committee. But it was a sham, of course — there was no public hearing, no witnesses called, no open debate on the record, no issuance of a report outlining the rationale or effect of the bill, no opportunity for public comment. And they then proceeded to approve the bill, and send it to the the entire Assembly so that august body can “consider” it, no doubt in the same sagacious way as did the committee.
And here’s the kicker — they did it on St. Patrick’s Day, our patronal feast. As if none of them knew that the day had some vague religious significance to Catholics.
So, in one package, there you have the New York State Legislature in all its glory — heedless of consequences, hostile to Catholicism, contemptuous of the public, indifferent to democracy, and dismissive of justice. The perfect storm of the most disfunctional legislature in the nation.