Justice for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Clergy — Pass the Child Victims Act Now! By Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D.

The crisis enveloping the Catholic Church regarding the epidemic sexual abuse of children by priests is growing more furious every day. Recently, the New York State attorney general issued subpoenas to all eight Catholic dioceses as part of a sweeping investigation into whether institutions covered up allegations of child sexual abuse. Fueled by the horrific Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that disclosed the sexual abuse of over 1,000 innocent children, by hundreds of priests, action is being taken at a swift pace.

My hope is that this public outrage now funnels into action to pass the Child Victims Act that would eliminate time limits for child sexual abuse prosecution in New York State. It is long overdue. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and APSAC-NY are staunch advocates, as we work each day with children and families devastated by this crime. Numerous versions of this bill have failed to pass each year. A current version would increase the time for commencing a civil action against the perpetrator until the victim reaches 50 and the time for commencing a criminal proceeding until the victim turns 28. The New York State law lags seriously behind other states regarding bringing justice to survivors of child sexual abuse and holding perpetrators accountable.

Children are taught from a very early age to obey their parents, and other adults in their life. This can include their parent’s boyfriends, girlfriends, their neighbors, teachers, coaches, priests, rabbis and family friends. The fact is that in 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases, family members and trusted adults are the perpetrators. It’s not strangers that are molesting children, it is people that they know and trust. Imagine the confusion, anguish and fear that this breach of trust can cause for a child. This is a very complicated dynamic. And, it helps one to understand why children do not disclose the crime committed against them.

Most child sexual abuse perpetrators are master manipulators. They can often convince anyone, even professionals, that they are innocent. At times, the perpetrators are so convincing that parents may even doubt their own child. Perpetrators are very good at giving excuses, such as being intoxicated or claiming that the child “came on” to them.

Children who are sexually abused can experience a myriad of problems including: depression, anxiety, anger and aggression, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, dissociation, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and self-injurious behaviors. Unaddressed, these symptoms can continue into adulthood, impacting their physical and mental health.

Many adults who were molested as children have confided that they only wish that they had known who to go to, who to tell, to stop the abuse. Instead, shamed, afraid, and embarrassed, they suffered in silence until they were old enough to get away from the abuser — one woman told me that did not disclose the abuse until after the perpetrator had died due to her fears. The obstacles to disclosure can be overwhelming. That’s why the current law in New York State to prosecute these cases, requiring disclosure by age 23, needs to be eliminated.

Survivors of child sexual abuse, whatever their age, deserve the right to hold their perpetrators accountable. Bringing them to justice will also protect other children from this horrific abuse.

For more information on keeping children safe visit www.nyspcc.org

Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D.

Written by

Executive Director, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children