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Recent child sex abuse scandals -- from churches to billionaires -- have put an increased focus on the statute of limitations when it comes to lawsuits involving past sexual assault. An array of factors can keep child victims from speaking out about abuse until years later, and while they can theoretically sue their abusers, in practice, the time limits on those lawsuits can vary significantly from state to state.
Case in point: New York's Child Victims Act will go into effect this week, and legal experts expect that it will unleash a "tidal wave of litigation."
Under existing New York state statutes, child sex abuse victims have until they reach the age of 23 to sue their attacker. Additionally, victims can't sue institutions (like churches or schools) after they turn 21. That means the Empire State has some of the most restrictive civil statutes of limitation when it comes to child sex assault. (Criminal offenses like rape, aggravated sexual abuse, or course of sexual conduct against a child can be prosecuted at any time.)
But the Child Victims Act will now allow survivors could file criminal charges until they turn 28, and a civil lawsuit until they turn 50. It also gives anyone who was previously barred from filing a lawsuit one year to sue over allegations of sexual abuse, regardless of when they said it occurred.
"It's going to be a tidal wave of litigation," Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented victims of Catholic priests in Boston told Reuters. And Jeff Anderson, an attorney specializing in clergy sex abuse cases, said his firm has now assigned almost 100 employees to New York cases. The New York Bar Association also noted that judges in state courts "will also receive special training in dealing with cases involving child sexual abuse."
Most cases of child sexual abuse are governed under state law, although the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act provides funding for state-run child abuse and neglect programs that meet certain federal standards. And in high-profile nationwide cases like the abuse reported within Catholic dioceses, the Department of Justice may investigate.
Otherwise, it is left to victims, their families, and their lawyers to navigate restrictive statutes of limitation to hold abusers accountable. If you think a child is being sexually abused, or have other questions about child sex abuse claims, contact an experienced attorney today.