Jeffrey Epstein is dead, but many of his enablers are still with us, part of generations of adults who preyed on children—monsters who have long been protected from their crimes with the passage of time and, too often, the protection of the institutions they served. In New York, the effort to change the law and extend the statute of limitations for these heinous crimes had been frustrated for more than a decade.
Who in the world wanted to slam the door in the face of those harmed by those they trusted when they were too young to do anything about it? As it turns out, upstanding pillars of the Catholic Church and others in cahoots with Republicans who, until last year, controlled the New York State Senate, that’s who.
If this troubles you, wake up this morning and say Hallelujah. As of Wednesday, the law in New York that cut off a child victim’s chance for justice for most crimes when they hit the tender age of 23 is dead. In its place is the long-delayed Child Victims Act, which removes the state’s strict statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children and begins a one-year window to revive past claims, no matter how old. It extends the statute of limitations to allow for criminal charges against sexual abusers of children until their victims turn 28 for felony cases, up from the current 23. It allows civil actions against abusers and the institutions that enabled them until victims turn 55.
(On Wednesday morning, Epstein accuser Jennifer Araoz used the hours-old law to file suit against the late financier’s estate, his longtime companion Ghislaine Maxwell, and three unnamed members of his household staff—a maid, a secretary, and a "recruiter" of young girls—who “conspired with each other to make possible and otherwise facilitate the sexual abuse and rape of plaintiff” at the rich man’s massive Manhattan townhouse.
Araoz, who went public after the criminal indictment against Epstein was filed in July and has since been interviewed by the FBI and federal prosecutors, NBC News reports, says in her suit that she had never met Maxwell, but that based on “upon information and belief… Maxwell conspired with Epstein in the implementation and maintenance of his criminal enterprise which, in turn, victimized Ms. Araoz.” Maxwell, who has not been criminally charged, has repeatedly denied the claims against her from various accusers.)
A new sheriff arrived in town when the state Senate flipped from red to blue in the midterms, giving Democrats full control of Albany. The bill the GOP had blocked for more than a decade is so simple in its provisions and so necessary in a world of predators it’s hard to believe they bottled the remedy up for so long. And because all roads lead to New York, many big institutions, and the sex criminals who worked under their watches, have reason to expect that a delayed reckoning with justice is finally arriving.
“We are saying nobody is above the law,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, himself a Catholic, when signing the law earlier this year. “That the cloak of authority is not impenetrable, and that if you violate the law, we will find out and you will be punished and justice will be done."
That’s the hope for many victims, and the fear of the church, the Boy Scouts, schools and other institutions who’d hoped to have escaped this reckoning. Law firms have been seeking victims, and preparing suits, for months, and today the court doors open to these cases and this one-year window of justice.
No one with an ounce of emotional intelligence believes victims go public on a legislative schedule, especially one designed by interested parties. Most victims don’t have the memory, or the means to investigate if and when a coherent memory returns. Institutions had no interest in investigating themselves and it’s only recently that other institutions with resources like the Boston Globe uncovered terrible abuse in Massachusetts, the newspaper winning a Pulitzer Prize, and an Oscar for a movie about it in 2015. Since then, attorneys general have been at work; one of them, the Pennsylvania AG, spent years doing the painstaking work of uncovering a cover-up of massive abuse by priests in my home state. He issued a report a year ago this very month and it was a stunner. He found that 300 priests abused 1,000 children over 70 years and bishops and prelates above them covered it up.
More stunning, I knew two of them. Although I escaped their predation, I know that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to report it back then—nor at 23.
We don’t easily question authority figures—a teacher, a coach, a scout master, or from the sounds of it, an opera company run by Placido Domingo implicated of abusing the trust of young, aspiring sopranos under him by a sweeping AP investigation out Tuesday.
In my youth, priests were gods, lower and upper case. When my parish priest came to dinner, my mother got out the wedding china, the starched tablecloth, and served rack of lamb on a silver tray. Your parish was the team you rooted for, the jersey you wore, where you were baptized, schooled, and married. I could have never told my parents, not because they wouldn’t believe me but because a priest breaking character to molest me was too otherworldly for me to believe, so much so it would have had to have been memory playing tricks on me. When I was 23, not only would my memory still have been hazy but I was in college, more or less at home, where my parents were gods.
Looking back, there was something off about these two priests I could have told my parents about: the ones who kept the boys way too long in the sacristy after Mass, went swimming with them at the CYO pool, and slipped them extra tickets for the roller coaster on class trips to Hershey Park, Harrisburg’s Disneyland. Girls were invisible to them. I didn’t tell my parents, and neither did anyone else I know. It takes a village of adults because children themselves can’t be expected to do so until many years have passed. It’s heartening New York realized that by making the cut-off for civil suits age 55.
The law had to change because victims can’t. Young people don’t know what hit them when a respected adult turns into a monster. It’s an upside-down world where grown ups hurt you and there are other grown-ups who won’t do anything about it. There’s no safe place to turn.
There’s a place to turn now. It’s a new day for victims and a perilous one for the so-called pillars of the community, especially those electeds who bottled up legislation for years that would have helped them. We know who you are. We see what you did, and with the new law, exactly what you could have done years ago. Even if you can’t be voted out of office because you already were, you will live in infamy. To the new legislature, better late than never. Thank you.