Will the New York State Senate protect child victims or powerful predators?

Richard Tollner told us how, when he was at the tender age of 15 and 16, he was sexually molested by a priest he had trusted at the seminary he attended.

“It affected who I was; it affected my confidence; it affected my opinion of people. It affected my sexuality. I wasn’t sure — was this my problem?” he told us.

When Tollner was 17, his father died in a car crash. He realized then that he had to take care of himself, he said, and soon after reported the abuse three times — to another priest, to a teacher, to the head of the seminary. Nothing happened.

It was the mid-1970s, before The Boston Globe’s exposé on priests abusing children, before such matters were openly discussed.

Tollner says he came to realize, “I’m not the bad guy. I never was the bad guy.”

Tollner, who lives now in Rensselaerville talked to us for a podcast in March before the state budget was adopted. The governor and the Assembly had included the Child Victims Act in their budget proposals. A version of the bill has been proposed for a dozen years now. And Tollner has been strenuously lobbying for it all those years.

The Child Victims Act never came to a vote on the Senate floor and was not part of the final state plan. But Tollner and other advocates are not giving up. They rallied outside the Senate Chambers last week. We ran a front-page picture of their determined faces pressed against the glass of the locked door to the Senate lobby, protest signs in hand.

We had hoped with the Democrats elected on Tuesday, the act would finally come to a vote in the Senate — and pass. But now with Brooklyn Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, not rejoining the Democratic conference, the Child Victims Act may not come to the floor after all. Senators, whether Democrats or Republicans, should at least have a chance to vote on the act.

New York is among the states with the shortest statute of limitations for child sex-abuse crimes. Currently, a victim has to press charges by his or her 23rd birthday. Given the trauma caused by such crimes, it often takes decades for a victim to come to terms with the abuse and be strong enough to come forward.

Here’s how Tollner describes it: “With children, it’s not like an attack. It’s more like grooming that child for a relationship so they do not realize due to the immaturity and the trust in the person.” Many sexually abused children feel guilty and even complicit.

“A lot of victims don’t even realize it was criminal until years, decades later when they realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was not only wrong but it was criminal,’” said Tollner.

At age 8 or 12 or 16, noted Tollner, “They haven’t developed their own sexuality.” And, as modern scientific research with scans has shown, adolescent brains aren’t fully developed either.

The proposed Child Victims Act would stretch the statute of limitation in New York to 28 for criminal cases and to 50 for civil cases, with a look-back year where civil cases from any time period would be allowed. Organizations like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America have opposed the measure. Financial concerns have been noted but, as Tollner points out, in California, which passed similar legislation, no diocese has gone bankrupt.

As with any trial, evidence would need to be provided to prove the claims — admittedly harder to come by after years or even decades have gone by. But victims deserve the chance at justice. Beyond any monetary awards, many are looking to have their day in court just so their voices can be heard, their pain can be acknowledged, so they can heal and rebuild their lives.

And just as importantly, the act would serve a practical purpose. Many sexual predators of children are repeat offenders. Convicting perpetrators who now remain safe — shielded by a short statute of limitation — would stop them from hurting other children.

A Quinnipiac University poll showed that 90 percent of New Yorkers support the Child Victims Act. How can our legislators ignore such a mandate?

In the meantime, Tollner had this advice for anyone listening to our podcast, and it bears repeating for our readers: “If you know someone this happened to, or it’s yourself, tell someone you trust. Tell a family member, tell a teacher, tell a parent, tell a policeman, tell someone because you’re not the only one.”

He added, “There are so many people out there that think, ‘This couldn’t be happening to anybody else.’”

But it is. In New York State alone, 40,000 children are sexually abused each year, and it’s a crime that is woefully underreported. According to the National Center for Victims of Crimes, one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.

We could all learn from Tollner’s example as he continues to advocate for the Child Victims Act. “I can’t change someone’s past but I can help affect their future,” he said.

“Sex abuse is soul murder,” he said. “It’s who we are, our essence, our personality, our character, our strength. Someone tried to take that from you. Take it back.”

He knows people who have withdrawn after suffering such abuse and urges, “As soon as you tell one person, you realize it’s not your fault.”

He also said, “You have two choices: Suffer or move forward. They are both a lot of work.”

“The whole point” of the Child Victims Act, Tollner said, is “We’re giving people the right to say, ‘Hey, you’re not the bad person.’”

We urge our legislators to give abuse victims the chance they deserve.

In the meantime, we echo Tollner’s thoughts: It is not your fault. Tell someone you trust. And move forward.

We fervently hope our society — as codified in law — will be moving forward with you.

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