In 2015, a former student at Long Island‘s Chaminade High School came forward to say the school’s ex-president, Father James Williams, had abused him in 2011. But because the alleged abuse, which Williams denies, occurred more than two years earlier, New York law does not allow criminal charges to be made.
The Nassau County district attorney was legally barred from filing a sex abuse charge, the New York Daily News reports. The unidentified student, who is said to have been 18 at the time of the abuse, reportedly preferred not to file a criminal complaint even if the law allowed him to do so, but he felt that he and other alleged victims should have the opportunity to file charges if they choose.
According to the district attorney, Williams’ alleged actions amounted to misdemeanor sex abuse. New York’s Penal Law includes only three relevant sexually related misdemeanors, the Daily News reports.
One offense is forcible touching, meaning that someone “forcibly touches the sexual or other intimate parts of another person for the purpose of degrading or abusing such person, or for the purpose of gratifying the actor’s sexual desire.” Second degree sexual abuse entails manually touching someone “who is incapable of consent” —for example, because the victim is drunk. Third degree sexual abuse entails manually touching someone who does not want to be touched. The common element in all three offenses is the manual molestation, unwanted touching, committed by the abuser. These actions leave many victims with deep emotional and psychological scars. The recovery can be even more difficult when the abuser is someone in a position of trust or authority like a teacher, doctor, coach, or clergy person.
New York has eliminated the statute of limitations for other categories of sex crimes: rape in the first degree, forcible anal and oral sex, the insertion of objects into an orifice and two or more acts of intercourse or oral sex with a minor under 13 years old.
But the pattern of leniency toward misdemeanor manual sex acts allows a predator who repeatedly molests a child under 13 to take advantage of a five-year statute of limitations that starts when the victim reaches 18. Many victims struggle to come to grips when a trusted adult betrays them, and many times they do not find the strength and support to come forward in time to file charges before the statute of limitations runs out.
In the Williams case, Chaminade and the Long Island Catholic diocese quickly involved law enforcement and they appear to have conducted a rigorous investigation. Williams’s priestly order found the charges credible and defrocked him, according to the Daily News.
Abuse victims who have been unable to file criminal complaints because of the statute of limitations are pressing the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for statute of limitation are not pressing for reforms to the law. Assemblywoman Margaret Markey of Queens sponsored the Child Victims Act to reform the law. Currently, victims of childhood sexual abuse cannot bring civil or criminal charges against their abusers after they turn 23. That age limit is among the smallest windows in the nation for traumatized victims to come forward. Markey’s bill would not only make it easier for victims to sue going forward, but would also grant a one-year window for those whose statute of limitations had expired to bring a civil lawsuit.