Published: August 9, 2009
NewYorkTimes.com

Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey was rushed to an Albany hospital on June 23, the last day of the Assembly’s session, and was held overnight for observation with symptoms later diagnosed as dangerously high blood pressure.

The episode, aides said, whatever its cause, capped an intensely difficult period for Ms. Markey, 62, a Queens Democrat who had been cajoling and vote-herding for months in a frantic effort to shore up support for her Child Victims Act, a bill that would loosen restrictions on lawsuits involving the sexual abuse of children.

This was the year the perennial legislation appeared to have a chance. It had already passed in the Assembly by wide margins in 2006, 2007 and 2008. And though the State Senate had blocked the bill in the past, a new Democratic majority there appeared likely to make New York one of three states with a law allowing people to sue their alleged molesters — during a specific grace period — no matter how long ago the abuse took place.

But on that day, as the clock ran out on the 2009 session, Ms. Markey had come up short: Assembly leaders were unconvinced that she had the votes to win, and had yanked her bill from the calendar — ending its prospects in the near term and raising questions about its future viability.

Opponents have declared the bill dead. Ms. Markey has assured supporters it will pass in the fall, if the governor calls a special session of the State Legislature.

In any event, the bill’s collapse was a victory for the Roman Catholic Church, which led a shrewd and relentless campaign against the measure, and a blow to abuse victims and their lawyers, who have been pressing for Ms. Markey’s bill, and others like it around the country, since the revelations in 2002 about the molestation of children by priests in Boston.

And Ms. Markey’s brief medical emergency — she returned to work the following day — only seemed to underline the intensity of the struggles already fought and still ahead for a bill that plumbs two of the most profoundly complicated issues in human experience: sexual abuse and money.

The fight has been grueling on both sides. Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn, the outspoken prelate who marshaled the church’s campaign against the legislation — calling it anti-Catholic, and warning lawmakers he would be forced to close churches and schools in their districts — was himself ordered by doctors to undergo hastily scheduled heart bypass surgery on June 16.

He and other Catholic bishops in New York said the Markey bill would impoverish the church, pointing to a 2002 law in California that prompted hundreds of lawsuits, forced the state’s dioceses to pay more than $1 billion in restitution and led the Diocese of San Diego to file for bankruptcy protection.

“Nothing I’ve been involved in during my years in politics has ever been as excruciatingly painful as the fight over this bill,” said Assemblyman Charles D. Lavine, a Long Island Democrat who is among two dozen lawmakers who supported the Markey bill in past years, but hesitated this year.

Mr. Lavine changed his mind after priests and residents in his predominantly Italian-American and Hispanic district, especially older voters, started swamping his office with phone calls last winter, expressing their opposition. The pressure, which went on for months, led him to consider — for the first time, he said — the “humongous financial burden and, frankly, the ridicule” that the Child Victims Act and resulting lawsuits would inflict on the church.

His yes votes in past sessions, he said, were made partly with the knowledge that the Republican majority leader in the Senate, Joseph L. Bruno, a staunch opponent, would never let the bill see daylight in that chamber. Mr. Bruno stepped down in 2008.

“When it was never going to fly anyway, there was a tendency for many of us who are concerned about victims’ rights to symbolically support legislation like this,” Mr. Lavine said.

In the same way, the Catholic hierarchy in New York never felt it had to mount a serious campaign against the bill as long as Mr. Bruno held the line, according to lobbyists and legislative aides. Their effort this year forced longtime backers of the bill, like Mr. Lavine, to weigh the potential consequences of that support against their empathy for abuse victims.

With 76 votes needed for a majority in the 150-member Assembly, Ms. Markey’s bill passed with close to 100 votes in past years. This year, the bill’s solid support ranged, depending on the day, between 70 and 80, Ms. Markey’s aides said.

Lobbyists and advocates on both sides say other factors contributed to the change in climate.

When the Democratic Party leadership in the Senate was toppled on June 8 by the defection of two members to the Republican ranks, wavering supporters lost an incentive to risk the church’s ire in the crucial final weeks of the Assembly session.

“If it’s going to be a one-house bill anyway, why make people take the heat?” said Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat who was once a co-sponsor of Ms. Markey’s bill, but this year withdrew his support.

As originally proposed, Ms. Markey’s legislation had two main parts, one permanent and one temporary: It permanently extended the statute of limitations for filing civil suits over alleged child sexual abuse to 10 years — from the current 5 years — after a victim turns 18.

The temporary and more contentious proposal was to suspend the statute of limitations altogether for a year. Starting the day the law took effect, anyone claiming past abuse would have one year to file suit, regardless of how long ago the incident occurred. After a year, the statute of limitations would resume.

In trying to bolster her support, Ms. Markey added amendments. One gave the same rights to abuse victims who attended public schools as those from private or parochial schools, overriding the special protections public entities have under state law. One set an age limit of 53 on those who could file suits during the one-year window.

By most accounts, the amendments produced no new votes and fractured her support. Thomas K. Duane, the Senate sponsor of her bill, washed his hands of it, objecting to the age-limitation amendment. The amendment to include public schools drew fire from school and municipal officials.

Supporters of the bill, including BishopAccountability.org and Survivors for Justice, a Jewish group, have vowed to press on.

Ms. Markey’s spokesman, Mike Armstrong, said advocates are paying visits this summer to the offices of the two dozen lawmakers considered wobbly in their support, but still persuadable. “The leadership has told us they will put it on the agenda if she holds her votes with comfortable margins,” he said.

Bishop DiMarzio, whose diocese includes Queens, where Ms. Markey lives, has often mentioned her bill in sermons and his column in the diocesan newspaper.

“Retribution never brings about justice, nor will the crippling of the church’s ability to carry out its mission serve any purpose,” he wrote in his last column before entering the hospital in June. He has not addressed the issue since then. A diocesan spokesman said his quadruple bypass surgery was a success.

As it happened, the bishop was released from the hospital on June 23 — the day Ms. Markey’s bill was withdrawn.