I-Team: Insurance Industry Helped Squash Child Sex Abuse Law in New York

New York voters favor the passage of the Child Victims Act by a huge margin, but it remains stalled in Albany

What to Know

  • New York voters favor the passage of the Child Victims Act by a huge margin, but it remains stalled in Albany
  • If passed, the Child Victims Act would extend New York’s statute of limitations, allowing victims of past abuse more time to get in court
  • Longer reporting period could lead to more sex abuse claims, exposing churches, schools, nonprofits - and their insurers - to more liability

New Yorkers favor the passage of a bill to give child sex abuse victims more time to file criminal charges and civil lawsuits by a wide margin, yet that proposal -- the Child Victims Act -- has once again died in Albany.

The latest Quinnipiac poll shows 90 percent of the state’s voters support the Child Victims Act. So why is a bill with such overwhelming support languishing yet again in the state's legislative graveyard? 

The answer may lie in the lobbying dollars stacked against it.

The I-Team reviewed lobbying records and found the insurance industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence Albany lawmakers in 2017. Several insurance players list the Child Victims Act as a bill to target. 

The American Insurance Association, a trade group representing more than 320 insurance companies, spent $130,000 lobbying on subjects including New York’s statute of limitations for child sex crimes, according to disclosures filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics. Liberty Mutual and Zurich Insurance also put the Child Victims Act on their list of bills to lobby. Combined, those three insurance players spent more than $375,000 lobbying in Albany last year. 

If passed, the Child Victims Act would extend New York’s statute of limitations, allowing victims of past sex abuse more time to confront alleged abusers in court. The longer reporting period could lead to more sex abuse claims, potentially exposing churches, schools, nonprofits -- and their insurers -- to more legal liability. 

Maggie Seidel, an AIA spokeswoman, said the industry group supports the idea of expanding the statute of limitations for future acts of sex abuse. But there is concern the Child Victims Act allows for a one-year “lookback” period so victims can file lawsuits that were previously forbidden by the old statute of limitations. 

“Sexual assault in all circumstances needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Seidel said. “From an insurance standpoint, we have concerns about any provision that retroactively removes the statute of limitations (SOL) for civil cases.” 

The I-Team asked, but Liberty Mutual has yet to comment about its lobbying related to the Child Victims Act. 

A representative from Zurich North America said the insurance company is a member of AIA and agrees the lookback period is problematic. 

For years, the Catholic Church has voiced the most public opposition to the Child Victims Act. 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has said he supports eliminating the statute of limitations on child sex crimes going forward, but in a meeting last week with Democratic Gov. Cuomo he’s quoted as saying the “lookback would be toxic.” 

Cuomo has said he supports the Child Victims Act, including the lookback period. 

Lex Filipowski, a survivor of sex abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, said he believes insurance companies are aligned with the Church because they are both are looking to reduce exposure to costly liability claims. 

“In this instance, what would Jesus do? Would Jesus be lobbying to kill the Child Victims Act? The answer is hell no,” Filipowski said. 

Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Chelsea), who sponsored the Child Victims Act, says he has learned his bill will not get a vote before lawmakers leave for spring recess. He blames special interests, including the insurance industry, for killing the bill. 

“When special interests kill the Child Victims Act, it is tantamount to an admission of guilt,” Hoylman told the I-Team. “What are the special interests hiding? What do they know?” 

Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal (D-Upper West Side), who sponsored the Child Victims Act in the State Assembly, said insurance companies should stop looking at her legislation through the lens of profit margin. 

“The insurance companies, all they care about is the bottom line,” Rosenthal said. “What they neglect to consider is people’s lives, the damage that has been done to people who have been sexually abused as children, the fact that whole families have fallen apart. Lives have been ruined. So it’s reprehensible.” 

Aside from insurance groups and the Catholic Church, the I-Team found groups representing foster care workers and teachers also targeting the Child Victims Act on their lobbying lists. 

A Long Island-based foster care agency called SCO Family of Services listed the bill on its lobby filings. Despite that, the agency said it takes no position on the Child Victims Act. 

“We pay careful attention to legislation involving children and families, However SCO has not taken a position on this legislation and has not engaged in any lobbying on the issue,” said a statement attributed to SCO Chief Strategy Officer Rose Anello.

SCO was recently sued by former clients who say the agency recklessly placed them in a foster home with a man who’d been accused of multiple instances of abuse. That foster parent was acquitted in his criminal trial, but many of his alleged victims were forbidden by the state’s statute of limitations from filing charges. 

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) also listed the Child Victims Act among bills targeted for lobbying in 2017. Those unions, which represent hundreds of thousands of public school employees, spent a combined $1.1 million lobbying Albany in 2017. 

When asked for comment on the Child Victims Act, a UFT spokesman referred the I-Team to NYSUT. 

Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT, said his members are supportive of sex abuse victims, but his group takes no formal position on the Child Victims Act. 

“We are not actively lobbying on this bill and I don’t think we’ve spent a penny on it,” Korn said. “Out of an abundance of caution, we put down any bill that we even look at on our list.” 

Last year, the Democrat-led State Assembly passed the Child Victims Act, but it stalled in the Republican-led Senate when Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Smithtown) decided not to bring the bill to a vote. 

The I-Team asked if Sen. Flanagan would ever allow the Child Victims Act to come to a vote in the future. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Flanagan, did not directly answer that question. 

“Every issue is considered on the merits,” he said.

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