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Horace Mann Scandal Renews Calls for Reform of New York Child Sexual Abuse Laws

Jun 13, 2012 | Parker Waichman LLP

The inadequacies of New York's laws governing child sexual abuse lawsuits are being made clear, thanks to a new scandal that has erupted around Horace Mann Academy, an elite prep school in the Bronx.   According to a report from The New York Times, New York's restrictive statute of limitations requires that the grown victims of child sexual abuse file civil lawsuits by the time they turn 23.  But in the Horace Mann cases, instances of molestation committed by teachers against students at the school reportedly occurred 20 to 30 years ago.

The Horace Mann child sexual abuse allegations were revealed in a stunning article published this past weekend in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.  Written by a Horace Mann alum, the expose detailed charges that several teachers at the school abused students there in 70s, 80s and 90s.  While some teachers were dismissed after alleged misconduct was reported to school officials, at least one was allowed to stay on for years .  Horace Mann never reported allegations to the police or to parents.  The article, which included interviews with alleged abuse victims, detailed how the lives of some of those students had since been marked by drug and alcohol abuse, failed relationships, and in one case, suicide.

Bronx DA Robert Johnson has established a hotline for former Horace Mann students to report instances of child abuse, but it remains to be seen what good that will do.   Even Johnson admits there is not much that can be done to obtain justice for the victims detailed in the Times article.  Johnson also told the Times that it’s not even clear whether private schools are covered by laws that require school administrators to report child abuse, as public schools are.

For several years, Queens assembly woman Caroline Markey has sponsored legislation that would extend the deadline for filing child sexual abuse lawsuits until a victim turns 28.  Her legislation would also provide a one-time one-year period during which the courts would consider old abuse claims. But so far, the Catholic Church and other powerful group that stand to suffer massive financial losses in such lawsuits have successfully lobbied against it passage. 

Many states are already way ahead in this area.  According to the Times, some have lifted restrictions on when a lawsuit could be filed, while others allow victims to file whenever they come to understand the harm done to them by childhood abuse, regardless of their age.

The Horace Mann scandal has many child abuse advocates again calling for reform in New York.  Assembly woman Markey told the Times that the events at Horace Mann could change the political climate, and make passage of her bill more likely.  By taking the focus off the Catholic Church, she said, the Horace Mann debacle has allowed people to see that abuse can occur anywhere.

Markey told the Times that the Horace Mann scandal could be changing the political climate that has prevented passage of the legislation thus far, stating that it has taken the focus off of the Catholic Church, and shown that child abuse can happen anywhere.

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