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NY Bill Would Give Adult Sexual Abuse Survivors Their Day In Court

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

Supporters say a bill in the New York State legislature for adult survivors of sexual abuse that’s modeled after New York’s Child Victims Act has a good chance of passing this year. The measure, if approved, might place Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing multiple sexual harassment allegations, in an awkward position.   Marissa Hoechstetter says former Columbia University doctor Robert Hadden sexually abused her when he conducted routine medical exams during her pregnancy in 2010. 

In 2015, Hadden struck a plea deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s to give up his medical license, but he received no jail time, and did not have to be listed on New York’s sex offender registry. At the time, 19 women had issued complaints against Hadden.  

But since then, the #MeToo movement began and more than 180 women have come forward to say that they were also subject to unwanted groping and attempted oral sex. 

New York has a 20-year statute of limitation for rape, but for other forms of forced sexual contact, it’s only five years. The Adult Survivors Act would create a special one-year lookback window to allow New Yorkers who were sexually assaulted as adults to file a lawsuit against the person who harmed them, even if the statute of limitations has expired.  

They would also be able to file a civil suit against any institution, like a workplace, school, or house of worship, where the abuse took place.  

It’s modeled after the 2019 Child Victims Act, which has resulted in 5,000 lawsuits being filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse. 

Hoechstetter says adults should have the same option.

“We are not asking the legislature to make any decisions on the merit of our case, we are simply asking for access to the courthouse,” Hoechstetter said. “And I believe that should be granted. It is up to the survivor, if they want to, to pursue that.” 

Heela Capell is a housing court judge in Brooklyn and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She says survivors do not always process trauma on a linear timeline, and sometimes it can take years before someone is ready to confront their abuser in court.

Capell says even though she is very familiar with the court system, she was nervous about pursuing justice when the Child Victims Act provided the one-year lookback window in 2019 and 2020. 

“It’s not easy for me,” Capell said. “It’s terrifying for me. So I imagine that for other folks who are not judges and who aren’t in court every single day, it’s got to be scary for them too. Society’s got to appreciate that.”

Capell, who is running for election as a civil court judge, says she has faith in the justice system to hold abusers and the institutions that enabled them to account.

She says the law can also serve another purpose, too, and that is, to make would-be perpetrators think twice before acting. 

“For people to realize this is not OK behavior,” Capell said. “If it does that for just a portion of folks, I think that that’s successful.”   

Hoechstetter adds that it can also take some time to determine an institution’s culpability in a case of a serial abuser. She says there’s growing evidence that Hadden’s abuse at Columbia went on for 20 years, and that complaints from other staff went unheeded. 

If the measure is approved in both houses and goes to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk to sign or veto, it could put the governor in an awkward position. New York Attorney General Leticia James began an investigation after several women accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, including unwelcome hugging and kissing, and, in one instance, touching a female staffer’s breasts without her consent.  

Cuomo, a Democrat, has not commented on the bill, but if he were to sign the measure, some of his accusers could have the opportunity to file a lawsuit against him. 

The governor denies the allegations, and says he didn’t do anything wrong.   

Hoechstetter says it’s not her place to comment on Cuomo’s alleged actions. But she says the tales over the past two months of the women’s trauma, accompanied by statements from most of the state’s top Democratic and Republican politicians condemning the alleged acts and praising the women’s courage – have been emotionally exhausting.  

“We’re tired of empty promises from lawmakers,” Hoechstetter said. “It’s not enough to keep putting out statements admiring people’s bravery or saying that they stand with us,” she said. “This is a tangible way to show survivors that we matter, and that our voices matter.”  

Hoechstetter, along with survivors of sexual abuse by imprisoned former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, has sent a letter to Cuomo, asking him to support the bill. The letter was also signed by Evelyn Yang, wife of New York City mayoral and former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Evelyn Yang was also abused by Dr. Hadden.  

The bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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