April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I have some issues. Not about the urgent need to raise awareness about sexual assault and sexual abuse, of course. My issues have to do with how access to civil justice is blocked for far too many survivors.
In the past, we have covered two big obstacles: caps on non-economic damages, and the Feres doctrine. For example, often survivors try to pursue civil suits against sexual assault or abuse perpetrators, as well as third parties - like churches - which negligently hire or protect abusers. A recent article in Slate explored the horrendous impact of a non-economic damages caps on these survivors. In Ohio, for example, the state Supreme Court is about to rule on the impact of that state’s broad cap on the case of Jessica Simpkins, who “was raped at the age of 15 by her church pastor – a man hired by Grace Brethren Church in Sunbury despite the knowledge that he had previously sexually abused two girls.” She sued but because of this cruel state law, her compensation was severely limited and the church has not been held accountable.
Then there’s the Feres Doctrine, which bars U.S. military personnel from suing the government for personal injuries suffered while they are in the armed forces. Even for sexual assaults!
Today, I want to address a third civil justice (and criminal justice) problem - draconian statute of limitations laws. These laws block victims from bringing lawsuits after a certain amount of time – even though time passed because institutions were actively covering up the abuse.
Take Loyola High School, a private Catholic high school on New York City’s tony Upper East Side. As the New York Daily News has just reported,
Louis Tambini was a legendary figure at Loyola, a history teacher, coach and athletic director who worked at the small Catholic school on the Upper East Side for more than 30 years.
Tambini was also a creep who molested seven girls who attended the school in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Officials at the Jesuit-run school failed to notify authorities, parents or alumni when they learned about the sexual abuse allegations, according to a report commissioned by the current Loyola administration and prepared by the Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft law firm. But despite evidence that Loyola officials covered up the abuse for decades after they learned of the allegations in December 1982, the victims can’t file lawsuits against the school because New York’s statute of limitations expired decades ago.
The statute of limitations in New York, considered one of the strictest in the nation, bars sex abuse survivors from pursuing criminal charges or civil damages after their 23rd birthday.
“This report really does memorialize how an institution can use a strict and draconian loophole in New York State law to keep the matter quashed until the statute of limitations runs out,” said attorney Mike Reck, who represents one of the victims.
Last month, the Daily News reported on the sickening case of a foster father and accused pedophile, whose survivors are also blocked from suing under New York law.
And New York is not alone. In Illinois, for example, the statute of limitations has expired for abuse survivors of former House Speaker and wrestling coach Dennis Hastert. One survivor is suing for breach-of-contract, alleging Hastert “still owes him $1.8 million — plus accrued interest — as part of an agreement to hide” the abuse. But the rest are out of luck. (Find out about your state law here.)
California, for example, “refuses to eliminate or even extend the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims. Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed two legislative bills that would have extended the statute of limitations for victims, amid heavy lobbying from the Catholic Church and other institutions that have negligently enabled predators to sexually abuse young children.”