Bridie Farrell knows she should be celebrating.
For years, the Olympic speedskater, now victims-rights advocate, has been pushing for New York to pass the kind of legislation that went into effect on Wednesday.
Adult victims of child sexual abuse now have a one-year window to come forward in court. Up until this week, they have been prevented from taking legal action after their 24th birthday, per New York’s statute of limitations. The law has already prompted over 400 lawsuits, including one from Jennifer Araoz, an alleged victim of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died on Saturday. Forty-five judges have been designated specifically to handle these cases. Still, Farrell cannot rest easy. One year, she says, is “not a lot of time at all.”
“The clock is ticking. If you’re over 23, you need to act now,” says Farrell.
Victims’ advocates “fought like hell” to get a longer window, says Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, a think tank that has advocated for New York’s new law. “I agree that one year is too short.”
The opportunity to sue in court gives Farrell a degree of power over her life she felt she had lost. In 2013, at age 31, she famously accused Olympic silver-medalist Andy Gabel of molesting her when she was 15.
For 16 years, she says, she did not tell anyone. She kept skating, seeing Gabel’s face everywhere: on the banners overhead at her home rink, in the National Speed Skating Hall of Fame, on TV critiquing other skaters during the Olympics. By the time Farrell realized what Gabel had done was illegal, she was over 23. (After Farrell’s accusation, Gabel resigned from U.S. Speedskating, acknowledging he had an “inappropriate relationship with a female teammate.” U.S. Speedskating did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I view it as I lost agency over my body when I was 15,” Farrell says. “And now, at 37, for the first time, it’s back.”
But even as she urges victims to come forward, Farrell is not sure whether she is ready to file in court herself. Asked why she is hesitating, Farrell pauses.
It is always difficult for sexual assault survivors to relay their experiences in a courtroom, says Farrell. It can be even harder, when the assault occurred many years ago, and victims know their memory will be called into question. They might worry they do not have enough evidence and put off seeking legal counsel, Farrell says.
For Mary Ellen O’Loughlin, who was sexually abused by her stepfather as a child and is now middle-aged, it feels harder to come forward now than it might have been decades ago, when the abuse first occurred.
“With my situation, I dealt with it. Now I have to go back and revisit details of the case I haven’t even told my therapists,” she says. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to deal with this in this way now, at this point in my life.” Despite all that, O’Loughlin has decided to file a lawsuit against her stepfather. He “needs to be held accountable,” she says.
Even for victims fully aware of the new law, who watched it make its way through the legislature, there has not been a ton of time to wrestle with the decision. The legislation only passed six months ago.
Farrell worries about all the victims who are making sense of the legal requirements, trying to determine for themselves whether they have enough evidence to bring a suit. There is not enough time for victims to self-diagnose and “Web-MD it,” she says.
Despite significant media coverage, there are probably many adult victims in New York who will never hear about the law. The major fear, Farrell says, is that victims might find out about the one-year window only after the year is up.
Hamilton is not too worried about that. Everywhere you go in New York, she says, there are billboards and advertisements from lawyers, advertising their services for adult victims interested in making their case. There is a large video public service announcement about the law in the middle of Times Square, says O’Loughlin. Soon, the same ad will filter out to other parts of New York state.
Victims, Hamilton says, will also beget other victims. “News stories about individual cases will bring other survivors out: if their institution was named, if their perpetrator was named.”
Other states with similar laws have chosen to extend their windows for adult victims. In Hawaii, for example, legislators have voted to extend the window several times. Hawaii’s success, Hamilton wrote in an email, can be attributed to “horrific cases… but not an avalanche of them.” (In California, the strategy was not as successful. Legislators tried twice to pass later windows, but were vetoed both times by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown).
One common line of reasoning, cited by groups in favor of preserving original statutes of limitations, like the New York Archdiocese or the Boy Scouts, or any others likely to be sued, is that these kinds of windows will inundate the courts, inhibiting their ability to handle their normal case flow.
New York will almost certainly see a large spike in cases throughout the month. After that, though, O’Loughlin, who now sits on the Board of Directors for The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, expects the volume to die down. If it does, she says, the state may be more likely to agree to extend the window by another year.
Farrell is hopeful about the possibility of an extension, but she is not counting on it. She plans to spend the next year doing everything she can to spread the word.