Philip Culhane – A child abuse survivor fights law protecting predators
This is Philip Culhane who traveled from Hong Kong to participate in last week’s Child Victims Act hearing in New York. Please join us in thanking Philip for his brave testimony by asking your friends to sign our state petitions. This is the testimony he gave:
Good morning. My name is Philip Culhane.
A bit about me. I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. I attended Poly Prep Country Day School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, beginning as a fifth grader in 1976 and graduating in 1984. I went to college in Massachusetts and then went on to New York University School of Law. I went to work for a large Wall Street law firm, eventually moving to my firm’s Hong Kong office where I have been for the last 15 years. I am married and have two children, a 10-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son.
A story of fulfillment, success, love and driven accomplishment. But there is another narrative.
From 1966 through 1991, Poly prep had on staff a serial sexual abuser. He was the football coach. He was a legend. He was hired the year I was born. At one point while I was Poly, when my friends were on the team, the team was undefeated for three and a half years. He was a legend and also a serial sexual abuser. He repeatedly abused me starting when I was 10 years old.
At some point I managed to make it stop and he allowed me to escape, perhaps because he had so many other options. What did I do? I packed it away. I told no one. Not a soul. I assumed that it was somehow my fault and my pain to bear alone. I sensed then that others knew, the teachers, the administrators, the community. How could they not? It was happening every day to many children, year after year. It was just a thing that happened.
And who would dare to challenge the coach that put Poly football on top and helped open the wallets of so many alumni? And so I buried it deep. I didn’t forget but I refused to remember. I refused to remember so well that by the time I was 14, 15, 16, I lived a life seemingly unaware that it had happened. For years my mind never went inside the room I had put it.
And so I went. I went on to many good things. Always, though, there was an undercurrent. Something lurking. A good life but a life also beset by recurrent bouts of depression. A swirling storm that would arrive and sink in and I would have to fight my way out.
And so many years later my daughter was born, and then my son. My son was born when I was 43. And it all began to explode into my life. I saw myself in my son and the question, ‘How can I protect him, how can I protect my children from something that I was unable to protect myself from?” became relentless and overwhelming. I didn’t have an answer. And that is when my world exploded. This is how it works. The science shows this. Years later, like a time bomb, a life-changing event, marriage, the birth of a child, is a trigger and then resolution of some kind must be found.
And this is the core of the problem we are here to discuss today. The statute of limitations guarantees that in all but a tiny minority of instances, there will be no accountability for sexual abusers and, of critical importance, no accountability for the institutions, schools, churches, administrators, that harbor the abuses and seek to deny and work desperately to cover up, to avoid scandal. Desperate and deeply immoral actions and decisions are made rather than good decisions that take responsibility and seek to reconcile.
And so where are we? As a society, as a polity, as a community? We have a law that simply does not work. A law that guarantees injustice. This is not the purpose of the law. I am a lawyer. I studied jurisprudence at NYB, the study of the philosophy of law, the purpose, power and methods of the law.
Finality has value and must be respected and provided for in certain circumstances. For breach of contract, for a situation where the harmed party knows he or she has been harmed and has the presence of mind and standing as an adult to decide rationally what to do in response. I am an adult. I slipped on a banana and broke my hip. It happened in the lobby of a building. I have the, for example, three years in which to bring suit against the owners of the building for their negligence in not keeping their lobby banana-peel free.
Note the stark differences. What we are talking about today is the sexual abuse of children, children being molested and raped. The mind of a child does interesting and profoundly complicated things in the aftermath of these experiences. The adolescent seeks to survive and thrive, not to process the experience in the context of within how many years from when I turn 18 should I sue the people who did this, who allowed this to happen to me.
What do we need to do? We need to demand stridently that the time has come, for our society, for a society that we want to be a good society, a society in which people are free and empowered to live good lives, to demand and declare enough, the statute of limitations must be abolished for a set of behavior that amounts to rape, a crime against the soul, against still-forming adolescent minds. And we know we are going there. We are at one of those moments in history when we all know this will happen. Football, Penn State, Poly Prep, brought this issue into the living rooms of all of America. If before people could turn the other way, say it’s just some problem in the Catholic Church, now football has shown this problem, this injustice, to be American. Our problem. Our challenge to fix.
There will always be ill, sick people who need help and don’t get it and who abuse children. We know this. To fight this, to help police against this, we need every institution that has primary care for children, schools especially, to understand that where we are going is zero tolerance and total accountability. Abolishing the statute of limitations will achieve this. If institutions know, know that what they see in front of them but deny, if they know that accountability will be had when the situation is discovered, we will have powerful allies in the fight for the safety of children. As a society we will convert the institutions from enablers, concealers, deniers, to a force for vigilance against abuse and for the protection of children. We will help these institutions return to their primary mission. The nurturing of children. We will end the litigation and their desperate attempts to deny.
In our case, the case against Poly Prep, we worked, we fought, for three and a half years, just like that undefeated Poly football team from the early ‘80s. Fighting denial and a defense that said even if it all happened, it doesn’t matter, because the statute of limitations has run. The details aren’t at this point hugely critical. What is relevant is that the case settled. We found a measure of justice. But at what cost? Three and a half years. Twelve courageous men, each supplying a piece of the factual puzzle. One brilliant attorney. A huge investment of blood and treasure. Leading white-shoe law firms defending the school. Battle after battle. And at the end, a measure of justice came.
Two things I want to note. First, we had extraordinary facts and an extraordinary combination of committed plaintiffs and brilliant lawyering. But how many victims are going to have this? Have this, odd to name it so, this fortuitous combination of factors? Not many. We know this. For the huge majority of both victims and schools and institutions, there is no justice, no accountability. What did we prove? We proved that Herculean effort and the coming together of 12 men, one incredible attorney and a set of facts worthy of Dante’s Inferno bring it all together and justice and accountability can be had.
Second, what did we achieve? We didn’t change the law, we nudged it maybe, we established RICO, we established that possibly the statute of limitations could be tolled and the primary actions heard, but no fundamental change in the law. We achieved a small measure of recompense to 12 men. But what else? The world took note. Critically, schools took note. There are other schools in the NYC area who are today clearly behaving differently in response to abuse allegations. Why? Because they see the cost of fighting accountability. They know there is a better path, an inevitable path, a path to cooperating with society’s need, victims’ need, for just and accountability, finally for reconciliation.
Who are we protecting by these statutes? Institutions, schools, churches, teachers, administrators, priests and fathers, about whom we all instinctively recognize that they have the highest moral and ethical duty to protect our children when we as parents as community members give our children into their custody. They are charged with the academic and ethical and moral teaching of our children. We all know in our hearts that the highest standards of conduct and vigilance in the care of our children apply.
Finally, let me tell you one more story.
Imagine that right now your child is being abused, raped, at school. He or she is not going to tell you or anyone. He or she is going to bury that event so deep that it won’t return until 15 years from now, 20 years from now, when she has a baby, when he marries. And I tell you right now, as this is happening, an administrator, a priest, a father, knows and is doing nothing. And I tell you, your child has grown up and suffered mightily and then explodes into crisis. And I tell you the law offers you and your child no justice, no accountability, no resolution. No one lies. No one makes up a story that elicits shame, makes too many people turn away at the discomforting need to face the unspeakable. This story is a true story.
Our choice, our society’s choice: Protect the children? Make a just society? Or protect administrators and teachers and institutions that did wrong, that continue to do wrong? Grievous wrong. And so I ask you, what are we going to do? We are going to abolish the statute of limitations. We are going to pass laws that impose harsh penalties for the failure to report sexual predators. This is what we are going to do. We know this. It’s just a question of how long. How long? Not long. As Martin Luther King famously enunciated and declared, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. It’s time. The safety of your child demands that we take action and abolish the statute of limitations for these crimes.