12/13/2011 02:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011

Syracuse Child Abuse Cases Spur Calls To Reform New York Statutes Of Limitations

NEW YORK -- On Dec. 7, William Fitzpatrick, district attorney for Onondaga County in upstate New York, said he found credible the allegations of two former Syracuse University basketball team ball boys that Bernie Fine, the team's long-standing assistant coach, molested them in the 1980s.

"These two victims are believable," Fitzpatrick said at a press conference.

But state prosecutors won't be bringing any criminal charges against Fine for the alleged abuse, which the coach adamantly denies. The statute of limitations in both cases expired nearly two decades ago -- just two years after his accusers, now in their late 30s, passed their 18th birthdays.

Fine can't be sued either: under state law, the two men needed to file a civil suit against him before they turned 23.

"There is no remedy," said Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association. "Because of New York law, a child molester is going to get off scot-free."

Fine would not have fared nearly as well elsewhere in the country. In a growing number of states, legal reforms now allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek civil damages and criminal charges against their alleged abusers many years after reaching adulthood. The reforms are an acknowledgement of substantial research demonstrating that abuse victims often require an extensive period of time before they are ready to confront their abusers.

"People are so messed up that they don't get the courage and the gumption to do anything until they're in their 40s -- if then," said Thomas Neuberger, a Delaware attorney who has represented hundreds of victims of childhood abuse. "It takes a person decades before they get the courage to speak out."

The allegations against Fine, arriving on the heels of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, have triggered a new push by victims' rights advocates and legislators to reform New York's statute of limitations for child sex abuse, which are some of the most restrictive in the country.

In the last week, two lawmakers announced plans to introduce legislation extending the time period when victims of childhood abuse can seek criminal charges and civil restitution against their abusers. A previous bill to reform New York's child abuse laws passed the Assembly three times, but was repeatedly stymied in the state Senate after heavy lobbying by Catholic bishops, who vigorously opposed a key provision to temporarily lift the civil statute of limitations for decades-old abuse.

Yet the intense publicity now surrounding the Syracuse and Penn State scandals may finally push the vote for a reform bill over the top in New York, according to Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and a long-time advocate for child sexual abuse victims.

"I do think in the next year or two or three, it's going to be impossible for legislators to maintain statutes of limitations that favor predators," Hamilton said. "The public outrage is building."

The proposed reforms would bring New York closer in line with many other states, which afford child abuse victims special rights not given to other crime victims or civil plaintiffs.

Delaware has no criminal statute of limitations at all for any sex crime against a child. In Pennsylvania, victims have until their 50th birthday to seek criminal prosecution against an abuser. Six other states, including Connecticut, Louisiana and Missouri, allow criminal prosecutions of child sex abuse for at least 20 years after victims turn 18.

On the civil side, a majority of states now allow victims of child sex abuse to file claims against their abusers well into adulthood. Some states, like Delaware and Florida, have even eliminated the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Over two dozen other states have special laws that begin the civil statute of limitations only when a victim links an injury or condition to their abuse as a child, even if the recognition of the connection occurs decades later.

Several states have also passed special legislation temporarily lifting civil statutes of limitations for victims of decades-old abuse. In California, a 2003 law creating a two-year window for such claims resulted in hundreds of lawsuits against priests, teachers and other alleged abusers dating back to the 1950s and '60s.

New York has no statute of limitations for the most heinous sexual crimes against children, such as rape or aggravated sexual assault. For other forms of felony sexual abuse, victims have no more than five years after their 18th birthday to seek criminal charges. For misdemeanor abuse, the criminal statute of limitations is just two years after victim turns 18. For civil claims, child victims have just five years from the time they reach their 18th birthday to file a suit against an abuser.

Such laws are among the most restrictive in the country.

The bill proposed by New York State Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D), which previously passed the Assembly three times only to be rejected by the Senate, provides child victims an additional five years to file civil claims.

Attorneys who represent child abuse victims said such a change still did not go nearly far enough. But they do applaud a provision in the bill to temporarily lift the civil statute of limitations for victims to file claims for abuse that happened decades ago.

A bill with a similar provision for past abuse has also been rejected several times in Pennsylvania, where victims lose their ability to file civil claims against abusers at age 30.

Such a window would allow victims of priests, teachers, coaches and other authority figures to pursue claims against not just their abusers, but the institutions that may have helped cover up the abuse or did nothing to stop it.

The new law would only allow alleged victims their day in court, advocates note. They will still need to prove their claims -- no easy task when the alleged abuse occurred decades ago.

The airing of allegations of long-ago abuse can even have a impact in the here-and-now, as many pedophiles continue to offend well into old age.

"It can help identify victims that are within the criminal statutes of limitations," said Dion, of the National Crime Victim Bar Association. "Pedophiles don't retire."