In particular, the law created a one-year period, starting Wednesday, when any adult survivors of child sexual abuse could sue an abuser or a negligent institution, no matter how long ago the abuse took place.
The idea behind the law is that many victims of child sexual abuse keep it a secret for years, well beyond the previous statute of limitations, out of shame and fear. This law gives them a chance to “reclaim their dignity,” said Michael Polenberg of Safe Horizon, a victim assistance non-profit that worked to pass the law.
“For survivors who understand what has happened to them and know in their hearts what happened to them, they get to name that person in court,” he said.
Child sex abuse survivors Joelle Casteix, Jeff Dion, and Bridie Farrell of the Zero Abuse Project said in a joint statement that the law gives victims the power and ability to come forward, find justice and hold people accountable.
“The sheer volume of lawsuits filed today is both simultaneously heartbreaking and encouraging,” they said. “It is indicative of just how deep-rooted the problem of child sex abuse is in our country.”
Several New York attorneys said to expect lawsuits against people and organizations implicated in child sex abuse scandals, including the late financier and serial child predator Jeffrey Epstein. Despite Epstein’s death on Saturday from an apparent suicide, the civil lawsuits can continue against the multimillionaire’s estate, legal experts said.
“Fortunately, New York’s Child Victims Act now affords survivors like me legal recourse,” Araoz told reporters Wednesday. “Today I am exercising my rights under that law. Today I am starting to reclaim my power.”
What the law changed
The one-year reprieve for civil lawsuits applies to accusations of child sexual abuse, including those that had been previously dismissed for being filed too late or for those who failed to file a notice of claim in time.
“It’s a way for victims to take matters into their own hands,” said attorney Carrie Goldberg said. “It gives them a path to justice.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law in February and praised the abuse survivors who came forward to make a change for others.
“This bill brings justice to people who were abused, and rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished for too long,” he said. “By signing this bill, we are saying nobody is above the law, 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.”
The law was signed after more than a decade of opposition from the Catholic Church in New York, Cuomo said. He added that the law’s passage was “society’s way of saying we are sorry.”
“We are sorry for what happened to you,” he said. “We are sorry that it took us so long to acknowledge what happened to you. We are sorry that justice took so long. We are sorry to the other victims who, in the interim, were also violated because society was slow in acting.”
In addition to the one-year window, the act makes several other changes, expanding child victims’ ability to pursue justice in their cases through the legal system.
The new law allows survivors of child sex abuse to file a civil suit until their 55th birthday, an increase from the previous age limit of 23. And it also extends the statute of limitations for child sex abuse charges, up to 28 for certain felony charges and up to 25 for misdemeanor charges.
CNN’s Augusta Anthony, Elizabeth Joseph and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.