ALBANY, N.Y. – Paul Barr, who says he was molested by a Catholic priest 38 years ago, finally felt exonerated this week when New York lawmakers strengthened the state’s Child Victims Act after years of refusing to do so.
“It means vindication,” said Barr. “Now we get to stick up for the children we were and confront those who abused us or let us be abused.”
The 53-year-old Niagara Falls advocate for sex abuse victims said holding bad priests and their superiors who looked the other way will now be far easier throughout New York.
With only three lawmakers objecting, the state legislature voted Monday to establish a one-year window for adults who claim they were victims of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits against their abusers.
Criminal charges under the Child Victims Act won’t be retroactive but changes to the law would extend by 10 years the current five-year limit for future prosecution of felony sexual abuse crimes. That clock starts when a victim turns 18.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will sign the changes into law. He had called on the lawmakers to enact legislation to extend the statute of limitations for survivors of child sex abuse and hold accountable those who turned a blind eye to the misconduct – whether public or private institutions or individuals.
“The only sin greater than abusing a child would be protecting those who abuse a child,” said Cuomo.
The state Catholic Conference, reacting to the wave of protest over the church’s sex abuse scandal, supported the tougher law, a political turnabout from years of lobbying against similar legislation.
Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York City and seven other bishops issued a statement saying the legislation recognizes that “child sexual abuse is an evil not just limited to one institution, but a tragic societal ill that must be addressed in every place it exists.”
Opposition in the past came mainly from Republican lawmakers, who feared retroactive atonement in the civil courts for adults who claim they were abused could bankrupt Catholic parishes and other institutions.
In the showdown vote, however, concern for the victims carried the day. Several legislators gave emotional speeches about constituents who had suffered years of remaining quiet and finally getting up the courage to come forward.
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi recounted years of anguish.
“I am a child sexual abuse survivor and this bill is incredibly important to me,” said Biaggi. “The shame that abuse creates turns often times into silence. For me, that silence lasted 25 years.”
Barr said he was molested by his parish priest, who is now dead, shortly after being confirmed into the Catholic faith at age 15. He told the Niagara Gazette last year he was served beer and made to “feel cool,” then molested before he resisted, jumped up and ran away crying.
He said he told his mother about the incident but she blamed him for the encounter and told him not to tell anybody.“She got upset with me,” said Barr. “She asked me why I was so naïve.”
Soon afterwards, the priest was shipped off to another parish, said Barr.
The Catholic Church has been the subject of investigations and reports around the country over sexual abuse by priests and the culture of silence by their superiors. Millions of dollars have been paid to victims to keep quiet in the past -- and now to pay survivors who come forward.
The broadest U.S. investigation into clergy sex abuse occurred in Pennsylvania, where a grand jury concluded last summer that 300 Catholic priests abused 1,000 child victims over seven decades. That state’s legislature is also expected to consider changes to child protection laws.
The Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Associated Press contributed to this story.