Victims of Sexual Abuse as Minors Fight for a Day in Court

Ana López-Wagner (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

When she was 32, Ana López-Wagner finally told her therapist about the sexual abuse she suffered when she was 9. At a print shop that still exists located in the building where she used to live, a friend of the family touched her inappropriately. The man later made her put a hand over the Bible and swear that she would not tell anyone or her parents would die.

Sitting at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment where she grew up, Ana told El Diario that the sexual abuse lasted three years until, without giving much detail, she finally told her family that the man had been “fresh” with her. That is when they kicked him out of their circle. “After that, as in many Hispanic families, [I was told that] I was not to speak of this ever again,” said López-Wagner, whose parents are Dominican.

Telling her story decades later, she said that what bothered her the most was the years she spent hiding the experience and carrying with her the trauma of having been abused while still a child. What surprised her the most, however, was that when she finally reported the crime at the 90th Precinct, they told her: “We cannot file a report.”

The reason is that, according to current New York state law, a person over 23 cannot file a report for sexual abuse endured as a child, a rule otherwise known as “statute of limitations.”

Today, five years after she tried to bring her abuser to justice, the mother of three is advocating for the approval of the Child Victims Act in New York, a bill introduced by state Sen. Brad Hoylman that would eliminate such limits for cases of sexual abuse in civil and criminal courts.

A retrospective law

The bill also contains a provision to allow victims who, like López-Wagner, had been unable to file a report due to the statute of limitations, to initiate legal action against their aggressors within one year.

The current legislative session in Albany ends on June 21, and the pressure is mounting on lawmakers to pass this law. “Every day, month and year that goes by and we fail to pass the Child Victims Act, we are denying justice to survivors who were robbed of their innocence and providing protection for people who sexually abuse minors and for the institutions that shelter them,” Sen. Holyman told El Diario.

State Sen. Marisol Alcántara, one of the sponsors of the bill, said that the measure offers people who have been silenced the chance to find a path to justice.

“It is very important for us as a society to demonstrate that child abuse in any form cannot be tolerated or excused,” said the representative of Upper Manhattan.

According to current laws, the statute of limitations is only ignored in cases of first-degree sexual crimes against minors such as rape. Cases in which someone inappropriately touches a child, even when the abuse continued for a period of time, are subject to these limits.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo included the new piece of legislation in his priorities agenda for 2017, citing that “the outdated laws of New York do not adequately address the needs of these young victims.” In addition, the leader met with some of the survivors, including López-Wagner.

“Our laws should be based on the evidence demonstrating that most victims do not report their cases until later in life,” said Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs with the nonprofit Safe Horizon, where free help to victims of violence is offered in the five boroughs.

Polenberg explained that, while his organization is able to offer health services and therapy to adults who were abused as children, the laws currently in place create limits when it comes to assigning criminal liability.

For that reason, Safe Horizon also supports the new bill, which “simply gives survivors more ways to achieve justice,” said Polenberg.

Opposition exists

Insurance companies and the Catholic Church are among the groups opposing the passage of the bill, particularly regarding the retrospective one-year period.

“We are very concerned about the possible negative consequences the bill would have over the charitable, community and social services that the Catholic Church is offering in neighborhoods across the state,” said Dennis Poust, communications director with the New York State Catholic Conference.

The Church supports a different bill introduced in the Senate and the State Assembly called the Child Protection Act of 2017, which proposes extending the age limit to present civil cases in court to 28 years of age but eliminates all statutes of limitations to present a criminal case. It also adds the clergy to a list of groups who would be required to report instances of abuse, and mandates that all employees and volunteers working with children in public environments and at nonprofits obtain a background check.

Seven states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota and Utah – have already passed laws similar to the Child Victims Act: “We have yet to see institutions go bankrupt or places of worship and universities close, but we have seen people having their day in court,” said Polenberg, adding that it is hard to win this type of case.

An estimated 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before they turn 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In López-Wagner’s opinion, the highest number is found among Hispanic girls because they are seen as sexually attractive from younger ages.

March for pressure

The second Child Sexual Abuse Survivors Walk over Brooklyn Bridge, organized by Ana López-Wagner, [took] place on June 4.


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