BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday signed the Child Victims Act, reforming what many have called New York's outdated laws regarding child sexual abuse.
The bill -- passed unanimously last month by the State Senate -- had been bottled up in Albany for 12 years, but the logjam broke after scores of sexual abuse victims revealed they were molested by Catholic priests in the Diocese of Buffalo and in other institutions throughout the state.
"This bill brings justice to people who were abused," Cuomo said at a news conference in New York City. "The bill rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished. Today says, ‘Justice is done.’ Today says, ‘Nobody is above the law.’ The bill says, ‘For those who are cloaked with authority, that that cloak is not impenetrable. That if you violate the law, we will find out, and you will be punished.’"
Standing in the newsroom of the New York Daily News, the governor credited three groups of people: the brave abuse survivors who stepped forward at great personal cost, the journalists who told their stories and took on powerful institutions, and the legislators who finally found the political courage to reform the laws.
"Today we are about to sign a bill long in coming that makes history," Cuomo said. "Why? Because great journalists excel, because elected officials persevered and showed courage, but most of all we are here today because courageous victims who endured great pain and great anguish and great humiliation had the courage to come forward and tell their story."
Previously, child sexual abuse victims had only until their 23rd birthday to pursue criminal or civil charges against their abusers or the institutions that covered up the abuse.
The new law will extend those statutes of limitation to age 25 in misdemeanor criminal cases, age 28 in felony criminal cases, and 55 in civil cases. It also establishes a one-year "look-back window" where victims can file civil lawsuits for one year, no matter their current age.
State legislators credited many survivors of sexual abuse in the Buffalo Diocese with influencing their decisions to support the legislation. The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team traveled to Albany last month with abuse survivor Michael Whalen, who was the first survivor to come forward last year to allege sexual abuse by the Rev. Norbert Orsolits of the Buffalo Diocese.
His revelations helped set off a sexual abuse scandal in the diocese which led more victims to come forward and also led to investigations by the FBI and State Attorney General. The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team in August published a three-part series based on confidential documents by a church whistleblower which revealed what many have called the mishandling of abuse allegations by Bishop Richard J. Malone.
More than 118 clergy in the diocese have now been accused of sexual misconduct and more than a dozen priests have been suspended from active ministry.
KEY LINKS IN THE BUFFALO DIOCESE SEX ABUSE SCANDAL:
Part 1 of the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team investigation revealed that Malone returned Fr. Art Smith to ministry despite allegations of inappropriate contact with a child. Malone returned the accused priests to ministry after a previous bishop suspended him, documents obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team show.
Part 2 revealed that Malone allowed Fr. Robert Yetter to remain pastor of St. Mary's in Swormville despite multiple sexual harassment allegations by young men.
Part 3 cited church records that showed more than 100 priests in the diocese were accused of sexual abuse or misconduct. Malone in March released a list of only 42 priests "who were removed from ministry, were retired, or left ministry after allegations of sexual abuse of a minor."
The investigative series sparked Buffalo civic leaders to call for Malone's resignation and Catholics have mounted weekly protests in front of the Diocese of Buffalo Chancery. Malone in August held a news conference and refused to resign as Buffalo bishop.
In September, the State Attorney General launched a statewide investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and last week, it was revealed the FBI has launched its own criminal investigation into the diocese.
In October, "60 Minutes" aired a national investigative story on Bishop Malone and the Diocese of Buffalo.
In November, I-Team Chief Investigator Charlie Specht traveled to Portland, Maine. Malone served as bishop there before coming to Buffalo. There, Charlie spoke with advocates for victims of sexual abuse about how Malone had been accused of mishandling sex abuse cases. The I-Team also obtained new documents surrounding the cases which paint a much different picture of the bishop’s past.