Opinion

Opinion

Some accusations provide no easy answers

Posted October 2, 2018 7:22 a.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. _ I'm not sure how anyone could watch Christine Blasey Ford last week and not believe she's the victim of a trauma. She was authentic and real, and her testimony, before an audience of millions, was downright heroic.

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But Brett Kavanaugh was also convincing as he denied allegations, his anger the understandable reaction of a man who feels falsely accused of heinous crimes. As he fought to save his reputation, the judge came across as believing what he was saying.

The fair-minded viewer could be flummoxed by it all. How can conflicting but credible testimonies be reconciled? Obviously, one of the two must be wrong.

As I considered it all over the weekend, and rewatched some of the testimony, I found myself thinking about the Child Victims Act and how the mess surrounding Kavanaugh bolsters arguments in support of the proposed legislation _ and also against it.

The Child Victims Act, debated by the state Legislature for more than a decade, would extend New York's shamefully restrictive statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. That part of the law is not controversial.

The legislation would also enact a one-year window during which victims could bring lawsuits for past abuse. That is controversial.

Proponents say the legislation recognizes that victims of childhood sexual abuse often take decades to come to terms with what happened and to build the strength needed to confront a perpetrator.

Ford's experience illustrates that.

The psychology professor believes she was assaulted by Kavanaugh when they were both in high school. It wasn't until decades later, she says, that she came to understand the alleged attack as a traumatic event with a lasting impact on her life, and she didn't tell anyone, even her husband, the full details until 2012.

Even when Ford reached out to a member of Congress after Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, she hoped to levy the accusation anonymously. Ford then agonized over whether to come forward, before deciding she needed to describe the alleged assault in her own words.

"I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me," Ford said to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As believable as Ford was, there is no independent evidence to support her accusation. We don't have to think she's lying to acknowledge that her story could be inaccurate. We can side with victims while conceding that no human being is infallible.

Meanwhile, Kavanaugh's emphatic denials are also not backed by much in the way of proof, which is not surprising given how much time has passed.

Long before the Kavanaugh hearings, opponents of the Child Victims Act were saying that it would present us with similarly difficult cases and would therefore be wholly unfair to the accused. Statutes of limitations exist, they say, for good reasons, including the unreliability of our memories.

In testimony to the Legislature, the New York State Catholic Conference said the act would force the accused "to defend alleged conduct decades ago about which they have no knowledge, and in which they had no role, potentially involving employees long retired, dead or infirm, based on information long lost, if it ever existed."

That would be "contrary to justice," the group added, "because simply too much time has gone by in many cases to mount an effective defense."

Certainly, there are significant ways in which cases under the Child Victims Act would be wholly dissimilar to the Kavanaugh mess.

For one, they would involve adult crimes against children, and not, as alleged by Ford, one juvenile assaulting another. Two, they would be decided in courts, where the standards and consequences would be entirely different.

The Senate, of course, is only trying to determine Kavanaugh's fitness for the Supreme Court in the wake of Ford's allegation. It is not charged with determining Kavanaugh's guilt or whether Ford is telling the truth.

Public opinion is _ surprise, surprise _ divided along partisan lines. According to a new Quinnipiac poll, Republicans overwhelmingly believe Kavanaugh while Democrats overwhelmingly side with Ford. Independents lean her way, but not by much.

Republicans say Kavanaugh is honest, Democrats say he isn't and everybody else is split down the middle.

The problem with the poll is that its questions are binary. It was possible to watch last week's hearings and believe both Ford and Kavanaugh. The most rational position might be to admit that we don't know exactly what happened. We probably never will.

The Child Victims Act would similarly raise questions without easy or conclusive answers. That's undeniable.

But there will also be cases with evidence that's persuasive enough for courts to make a decision, often to the benefit of victims who have been scarred by abuse and have waited too long for justice. That is no small thing.

Contact columnist Chris Churchill at 518-454-5442 or email cchurchill(at)timesunion.com

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