Should NY Discriminate Against Sex Abuse Victims?

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Apr 01, 2009 6:35 PM
Should NY Discriminate Against Sex Abuse Victims?

Michael O'Herlihy used to be a Catholic priest.

He was accused of abusing one of his students around 1980, at a time when he taught at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. In 1993 he was defrocked. In 2002 his name was included on a list of priests accused of sexual abuse that the Archdiocese of New York gave to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

And, yet, where is Michael O'Herlihy today?

He is an assistant principal at a public high school -- Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School.

Should public school teachers receive special protection from sex abuse charges?

A new bill pushed in New York (similar legislation has been introduced in other states) has two remarkable features: 1) It removes the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits against sex abusers at schools and charities for one year, and 2) it exempts public schools.

Removing the statute of limitations means that people who believe they were victimized as children can reach back 30 years or 40 years or more and sue not only individuals (likely dead or poor), but the institutions that hired these individuals. A flood of new litigation based on ancient cases, by victims who never came forward before, will make it difficult to defend against false claims (or honest claims by disturbed people) because so many of the people involved are dead.

Sex abuse of children is a horrifying crime. So is punishing people for crimes that did not occur. We have a statute of limitations for a reason. Even rape victims are not typically allowed to come forward 30 or 40 or 50 years later because determining justice after so much time has passed is too hard.

I don't mind crucifying the abusers, whatever their religion. But in this case permitting lawyers to collect vast sums from nonprofits is not going to punish the abusers. It's going to punish, even potentially shut down, students, teachers and parents at religious schools and other faith communities who never did anything wrong. Schools and churches are not businesses. Their expenses are paid by people using them now. The people who will pay for this flood of litigation are mostly those who had no control over what happened 30 years ago.

Sex abuse survivors say that justice requires taking this drastic step and running this risk. And I'm willing to entertain that idea because sex abuse of children is appalling.

But if justice requires this drastic step, we need justice for all victims, not just victims who happen to have been abused by nonprofits.

Why are public schools being protected? It's not because sex abuse by public school teachers is rare. In just the last few weeks, for example:

Robert Becker Jr., 36, a substitute teacher at Franklin Central School in Delaware County, N.Y., pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree sexual abuse. Becker has been employed by the government on several occasions, not only as a teacher but as a corrections officer.

In Orange County, Calif., El Modena High School band teacher Carlie Attebury faced eight felony counts stemming from charges of having sex with her students.

Then there is Daniel Acker, 61, the swim coach at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School in West Allis, Wis., who was arrested on felony sexual assault charges stemming from a 2005 incident with a 15-year-old boy.

But significantly, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "A man in his 40s had told police that day that Acker sexually assaulted him from 1971 to 1976, when he was from 11 to 15 years old. Since then, at least three other men in their 40s -- including one who lives in Tennessee -- and a 19-year-old man have told police they had been sexually assaulted by Acker when they were minors."

Under laws like those being pushed in the New York Legislature, victims like these will be discriminated against. Why?

Are we talking justice for victims, or is this political payback time for religious institutions alone?