March 11, 2013 Times Union - NEW YORK — A proposal to abolish New York's statute of limitations on sex crimes involving children was the subject of a gut-wrenching Assembly hearing in Manhattan that included testimony from an attorney for two brothers who said they were raped as boys by an Albany Roman Catholic Diocese priest.

Tina M. Weber, a Philadelphia attorney, read statements from the brothers, who are now adults, about their emotionally tumultuous lives since they said they were raped repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s by a former priest, Gary Mercure, who was convicted two years ago of forcibly raping a child in Massachussetts.

Weber implored the Assembly's Codes Committee to push legislation that would make New York one of a growing number of states that have expanded or eliminated statutes of limitations on child sex crimes.

Variations of the measure, known as the Child Victims Act, have passed the Assembly four times but never made it to a vote in the state Senate, where Republican leaders and other lawmakers say the legislation could be financially devastating to the Catholic Church and other organizations.

"It is time for you to do the right thing — pass this legislation so that, finally, all of those who are responsible for the rape of children are held accountable ." Weber told the panel at the Friday hearing.

The two brothers represented by Weber went to the police with their stories in 2008, prompted, Weber said, by the fact that Mercure was still in the ministry and around children. Weber also said the boys' mother had been rebuffed by a diocesan official nine years earlier when she telephoned and then later approached him for help regarding Mercure's abuse of one her sons.

The Albany diocese disputes that allegation and said the information provided by the mother was that "Mercure had made an improper advance, though 'nothing happened.'"

"Over the course of two phone calls, (a priest for the diocese) described the Diocesan process for investigating allegations of clergy sexual abuse, and offered assistance to her son," said Kenneth Goldfarb, a spokesman for the diocese. "She seemed appreciative and said she would try to find an appropriate time to approach her son, whom she said lived out of state. No complaint was filed and there was no further contact from the parent."

Goldfarb said Mercure "categorically denied any inappropriate conduct." Father Louis Diemeke, the priest who fielded the complaint, said he doesn't recall the mother confronting him in person.

The latest version of the proposed Child Victims Act would eliminate, rather than extend, New York's statute of limitations on child sex crimes. It also would provide a one-year grace period for alleged victims to file civil lawsuits against their accused abusers or the institutions where they worked.

Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, a Queens Democrat who has championed the bill, believes the measure has a "reasonable" chance of passing this year, in part because of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Penn State and Syracuse universities, the Boy Scouts of America and secondary schools from varying religious denominations, including several in New York City.

The bill has gained broad support from victims and their advocates but intense opposition from the Catholic Conference, ultra-Orthodox groups and some legal defense experts.

The New York State Catholic Conference said it supports mandating that members of the clergy report suspected abuse and expanding criminal background checks. The organization, which lobbies for the bishops of New York's eight dioceses, has said that it backed a measure in 2006 eliminating the statute of limitations on new felony sex crimes, and the extension of the civil statute of limitations giving victims five additional years to sue their abusers.

"Allowing lawsuits claiming sexual abuse at any time in history does nothing at all to protect children today but imposes potentially catastrophic costs on organizations that provide charitable, educational, health care, spiritual benefits essential to communities across New York state," according to the Catholic Conference statement.

Proponents say the Catholic church and other institutions should not be shielded from civil liability for what may have been systematic coverups of child sex abuse. They also say those groups' contention that lawsuits for past abuse could bankrupt many institutions is not what's happened in states that have allowed similar measures.

Marci A. Hamilton, the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, told the panel that the financial argument is a "red herring" and that no institution, religious or otherwise, has been forced to file for bankruptcy.

"The fact is, insurance has to pay a significant portion of this and the fact is all of these institutions have to have insurance," Hamilton said. "No one has ever been put into involuntary bankruptcy."

Weber, whose clients' allegations against Mercure led to his 2011 conviction in Massachussetts, where his crimes were not barred from prosecution, said the financial arguments are "weak and just another example of the ongoing fear that these institutions have that their culpability, their coverups, will be exposed."

Mary J. DeSantis of Colonie also testified on Friday. Her son, Michael, in 2010 accused five priests of sexually abusing him as a young boy. A review panel appointed by the Albany diocese said his allegations were unfounded and said the priests were "cleared."

DeSantis called the diocese's investigation "a joke" and called her son's life "a living hell," adding that "reform of this statute is long overdue."

"I come before you today as the mother of a son ... who from the age of 9 was raped, sodomoized and molested repeatedly by his pastor and four other members of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany," DeSantis said. "No one would believe him."

The diocese, in a statement issued over the weekend on the DeSantis complaint, said: "It must be stated that the diocese's very thorough investigation was conducted by a retired FBI Agent, involved 56 interviews with 31 individuals, including the man who made the allegations, members of his family, and individuals he recommended, as well the accused priests."

In 2006, New York lawmakers passed a measure eliminating the statute of limitations on felony sex crimes, but the law wasn't retroactive, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that criminal statutes of limitations cannot be undone retroactively, only laws involving civil claims. Still, Markey's bill calls for prosecutions of those accused of sex crimes decades ago but never charged, barring any constitutional challenges.

A key issue in the legislation is whether victims should be given a one-year window to file lawsuits against their abusers, and the institutions that employed them, no matter how long ago the abuse took place.

Past versions of the bill would have extended New York's civil statute to until victims reach age 28. Now, buoyed by a wave of scandals that continue to rock the Catholic church and some secular institutions, Markey has proposed eliminating the civil time limit completely.

But the bill faces staunch opposition in the Republican-controlled state Senate, where lawmakers have blocked it from even coming up for a vote. Their position, in part, is fueled by pressure from Catholic and ultra-Orthodox groups that say allowing victims to sue their abusers, and the institutions that employed them, could bankrupt schools, churches and other organizations.

Supporters of the bill said the real fear of some opponents may be that civil lawsuits would open up files and testimony that could reveal systemic coverups of sexual abuse by religious leaders and also secular institutions.

Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of, which has created a vast database on clergy abuse, told the Assembly panel that the Albany diocese has an unprecedented record of clearing priests accused of abuse.

Markey said she remains hopeful that this year the legislation will gain enough support to pass in the Senate.

Senate Republicans' slim hold on a majority relies on a coalition they have brokered with several key Democrats, including Jeffrey Klein, a Bronx Democrat who has stated publicly that he opposes extending the civil statute of limitations.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, has not broken his silence on the issue and his office would not comment. • 518-454-5547 • @blyonswriter