Sexual assault survivors face fear, trauma, and social stigma when they step forward to name their abusers. Even moreso when the abuser was a priest in a Catholic church. It can take years, even decades, to decide to take that step. The passage of New York’s Child Victims Act says for long-past assaults, the time to speak up is now.
In this blog post I will review the story of Charlie d’Estries, who identifies as a sexual assault survivor after an incident of abuse by a local priest 50 years ago. I will explain how a New York law creates a one year look back window, giving the victims of long-past abuse one last chance to receive justice.
Charlie d’Estries was a young boy when he became a sexual assault victim. He told the New York Times that he remembered sitting naked together with his childhood priest and their relationship became sexual. But that didn’t mean he felt like a victim. d’Estries explained that realization didn’t come until 2018, when he attended a reunion for his Catholic school on Long Island. He connected with a nun who had known him as a student. She referred to him as “Billy’s buddy”, referencing his close relationship with the priest.
That’s when, as a 63 year old adult, d’Estries realized that his memories were that of abuse. It caused everything to shift for him. He was deeply shaken as he came to see himself as a sexual assault survivor, and he wanted justice. But the law, at that time, said that d’Estries had waited too long to speak up.
When d’Estries had his realization, New York law said that he was 40 years too late to file a lawsuit or seek justice. The state’s statute of limitations said that sexual assault victims had to file their claims within 5 years of turning 18. In other words d’Estries would have needed to come forward before he turned 23 in 1978. The sentiments around same-sex relations and sexual assault were very different then. Even if d’Estries had wanted to name his abuser, the social stigma of coming forward in the late 70s may have kept him silent.
Then the New York state legislature decided to make a change. In January 2019, lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations, giving sexual assault victims more time to come forward and see justice done. Criminal cases now have an extra 5 years (the same 5-year statute of limitations does not start running until the victim turns 23). In civil cases, survivors have even more time to come forward. A civil lawsuit for damages in cases involving sexual abuse, incest, or child pornography with a child victim can now be filed anytime until the victim turns 55 years old. But that would still leave d’Estries and others like him on the wrong side of the deadline.
The legislature seemed to recognize that their law could create an unfair situation. People like d’Estries never had a chance to deal with the effects of child sexual trauma as adults before filing their lawsuits. But those who grew up and had their experiences later would have decades to heal before making the decision to come forward. To account for those caught in that gap, the Child Victims Act created a one-year look back window.
For one year -- between August 14, 2019 and August 14, 2020 -- anyone can file a lawsuit for childhood sexual assault, abuse, or pornography, no matter how long ago the events happened. The law puts the statute of limitations on hold during that one-year look back window, and even allows anyone who missed their deadlines before to refile their cases. That means if someone’s lawsuit was dismissed for violating the old 5-year statute of limitations or because they didn’t file the proper notices, they can refile the lawsuit now under the Child Victims Act and get justice.
New York isn’t the first state to expand protections for sexual assault survivors. In 2019 alone, 40 states have introduced similar laws -- 18 of them have gone into effect. New Jersey’s law, which went into effect May 13, 2019, gives sexual assault survivors 2 years to come forward in its look-back window.
These laws promise to bring a lot of litigation with them into the court systems. In 2003, California passed a similar law containing a look-back window. In the year that followed, sexual assault survivors filed over 1,000 lawsuits, most against the Catholic church. Eventually, the Diocese of San Diego had to file for bankruptcy because of all the claims against it. New York has eight Catholic dioceses that will likely face lawsuits by people like d’Estries who were sexually assaulted by their priests. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York (including Manhattan) has already sued its insurance providers to make sure there will be money available for the victims who come forward.
The law also comes on the heels of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Many of the women (and men) who came forward told stories that were too old for litigation, until now. The look back window has opened the door for lawsuits against Jeffrey Epstein’s estate and other New York heavy hitters who thought they had waited out the storm.
The Child Victims Act makes legal action available to the victims of long-ago sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Sexual assault survivors will each need to decide for themselves whether justice is more important than the publicity and stress that comes with a high-profile lawsuit.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have a team of attorneys who know how to fight back against sex abuse and sexual harassment. Led by Attorney Adriana Alcalde, our sexual abuse attorneys will stand beside you and advise you as you make the decision to speak up. We will work hard to help you tell your story and get the justice and compensation you have waited for so long. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.