Saying she and other adult sexual abuse survivors deserve their day in court, Marissa Hoechstetter is looking to the New York State Legislature to make that possible.
Hoechstetter said former Columbia University doctor Robert Hadden sexually abused her in 2010, when he conducted routine medical exams during her pregnancy.
In 2016, after 19 women had issued complaints against Hadden, he struck a plea deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to give up his medical license, but he received no jail time and did not have to be listed on New York’s sex offender registry.
Since then, the #MeToo movement began, and more than 180 more women have come forward to say that they were also subject to unwanted groping and attempted oral sex.
New York has a 20-year statute of limitation for rape, but for other forms of forced sexual contact, it’s only five years. The Adult Survivors Act, currently being considered by the State Legislature, would create a special one-year lookback window to allow New Yorkers who were sexually assaulted as adults to file a lawsuit against the person who harmed them, even if the statute of limitations has expired.
They would also be able to file a civil suit against any institution -- such as a workplace, school or house of worship -- where the abuse took place.
It’s modeled after the 2019 Child Victims Act, which has resulted in 5,000 lawsuits being filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Hoechstetter said adults should have the same option.
“We are not asking the Legislature to make any decisions on the merit of our case; we are simply asking for access to the courthouse,” Hoechstetter said. “And I believe that should be granted. It is up to the survivor, if they want to, to pursue that.”
Heela Capell, a Housing Court judge in Brooklyn and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said survivors do not always process trauma on a linear timeline. Sometimes it can take years before someone is ready to confront their abuser in court, she said.
Capell said even though she is very familiar with the justice system, she was nervous about pursuing action when the Child Victims Act provided the one-year lookback window in 2019 and 2020.
“It’s not easy for me,” she said. “It’s terrifying for me.”
Capell, who is running for election as a civil court judge, said she has faith in the justice system to hold abusers and the institutions that enabled them accountable.
She said the law can also serve another purpose -- to make would-be perpetrators think twice before they act.
“For people to realize this is not OK behavior,” Capell said. “If it does that for just a portion of folks, I think that that’s successful.”
Hoechstetter added that it can also take some time to determine an institution’s culpability in a case of a serial abuser. She said there’s growing evidence that Hadden’s abuse at Columbia went on for 20 years, and that complaints from other staff went unheeded.
Supporters say the Adult Survivors Act has a good chance of passage this year. If the measure is approved in both houses and goes to Cuomo’s desk to sign or veto, it could put the governor in an awkward position.
New York Attorney General Letitia James began an investigation after several women accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, including unwelcome hugging and kissing, and, in one instance, touching a female staffer’s breasts without her consent. The governor denies the allegations, and says he didn’t do anything wrong.
Cuomo has not commented on the bill, but if he were to sign the measure, some of his accusers could have the opportunity to file a lawsuit against him.
Hoechstetter said it’s not her place to comment on Cuomo’s alleged actions. But she said the tales over the past two months of the women’s trauma, accompanied by statements from most of the state’s top Democratic and Republican politicians condemning the alleged acts and praising the women’s courage have been emotionally exhausting.
“We’re tired of empty promises from lawmakers,” Hoechstetter said. “It’s not enough to keep putting out statements admiring people’s bravery or saying that they stand with us. This is a tangible way to show survivors that we matter, and that our voices matter.”
Hoechstetter, along with survivors of sexual abuse by now-imprisoned former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, has sent a letter to Cuomo, asking him to support the bill. The letter was also signed by Evelyn Yang, wife of New York City mayoral and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Evelyn Yang was also abused by Hadden.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on Tuesday.