LONG ISLAND CITY — In the state of New York, victims of childhood sexual abuse have only until their 23rd birthdays to seek justice against their abusers — though the effects of abuse often last much longer, survivors say.
"I can tell you this is a lifelong problem," said Shaun Dougherty, 47, a Queens restaurant owner who was molested by a priest and teacher at his Pennsylvania Catholic school starting at the age of 10.
"I've met 81-year-olds that cry at the drop of a hat, because they remember," he said. "I have heard the most horrific acts done to children that you can imagine, and 78-year-old people recalling it like it happened this morning."
Dougherty, who now runs Crescent Grill, a successful farm-to-table eatery in Long Island City, is among a group of abuse survivors fighting to change New York's statute of limitations for sex crimes committed against children.
He and other advocates are pushing for passage of the Child Victims Act, urging lawmakers to vote on the bill — which has been languishing in the State Senate's judiciary committee since January — before the current legislative session ends this spring.
The bill would eliminate the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children, allowing victims to pursue either criminal charges or a civil lawsuit against their abusers regardless of how long ago the case took place, as is the case for other serious charges such as murder.
"New York has one of the most restrictive statute of limitations in the nation," said Sen. Brad Hoylman, the bill's main sponsor. "The injustice is so clear, and really quite alarming, to think that where you are abused as a child sexually determines your ability to seek justice."
The legislation would also allow current survivors who missed the age 23 deadline to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers during a one-year period — or "retroactive window" — that would start 50 days after the law is signed.
Supporters say lifting the statutes of limitations is vital, as victims of childhood abuse can sometimes take years to process what happened to them before they're ready to take action, or even talk about it.
That was the case for Dougherty. He says he was abused for about three years by George Koharchik, who was his priest, religion teacher and basketball coach in Dougherty's hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Koharchik was a family friend, Dougherty said, and "was in our house constantly." Koharchik would allow him as a 10-year-old boy to drive his car to basketball practice — what he realized later was an excuse for the priest to get close to him.
"If my hands were on his steering wheel, his hands were on my genitals," he said.
He didn't tell his Irish Catholic parents about the abuse for about another decade, and when he finally did, "it was easier [for them] not to believe me than it was to believe that the priest was molesting me," he explained.
But in 2012, when other men came forward with abuse allegations against Koharchik, Dougherty got a phone call from his mother.
"She was crying and she told me that she owed me an apology, that she didn’t believe me years ago, but George Koharchik's picture was on the front page of the hometown newspaper," he recalled.
Koharchik was never prosecuted because the statute of limitations for doing so had already expired. But he was declared a "child predator" last year in a report published by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, the results of a grand jury investigation into priests employed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
The report — which details abuses by dozens of priests in the same diocese — says Koharchik admitted to investigators that he'd slept, showered and wrestled with children, and also admitted to "having children sit on his lap and 'patting' the buttocks of young boys."
A spokesman for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown did not respond to a request for comment about the report's findings, and said the diocese does not have contact information for Koharchik, who was put on "restrictive ministry" in 2012 and resigned a few months later, according to the report.
Koharchik did not respond to a request for comment sent to him through Facebook. A public phone number listed for him was no longer in service.
Dougherty says he began speaking publicly about his abuse last year, and is now an active advocate for fellow victims both here in New York and in his home state.
In addition to fighting to remove statutes of limitations, he's working with the group Lawyers Helping Survivors of Child Sex Abuse to urge other clergy abuse survivors to participate in a compensation program being offered to those who were victimized by Archdiocese of New York priests or deacons.
He'll take part in a press conference Monday in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral to help publicize the "Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program," for which survivors have until July 31 to register.
"It's anonymous. Nobody will know, but you should be counted and be registered because that’s how anything is changed — out of the sheer numbers," Dougherty said.
A spokesman for the New York Archdiocese said they are also encouraging survivors to take part in the program.
But the church is less supportive of Hoylman's Child Victims Act.
The New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the Bishops of the state, called the bill "seriously flawed" because it includes the one-year window that would allow current victims to file lawsuits against their abusers, even if they're past the age 23 expiration.
"This extraordinary provision would force institutions 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," the Catholic Conference said in a statement on its website.
The Catholic Conference supports a different bill, sponsored by Republican State Sen. Andrew Lanza, which would eliminate the statute of limitation for criminal prosecution and allow victims to file lawsuits until they turn 28.
But it doesn't include the one-year window for current abuse survivors to pursue civil claims, which would "leave thousands of New Yorkers behind," according to Hoylman.
"These are the very New Yorkers who we want to help, and it's not right or fair not to deal with those individuals," he said.
Dougherty, who's journeyed to Albany last week in support of Hoylman's bill, said he's "disgusted" by opposition to the legislation.
"My faith in God is broken," he said. "My only faith in life is [in] justice, our form of justice, our form of government, and the politicians are blocking me from that."