Years after child abuse survivors in New York started demanding changes to the state’s statutes of limitations, victims are finally getting a chance to have their cases heard in court.
Hundreds of survivors are planning to file lawsuits on Wednesday against their alleged abusers and the institutions they claim covered up sex crimes as the state opens a one-year litigation window for cases that fell outside the previous statutes of limitations.
Michael Pfau, an attorney at Seattle-based Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, told HuffPost that his law firm is filing more than 100 suits Wednesday under the temporary window for instances of child sexual abuse that allegedly occurred between the late 1940s and the early 2000s. About 75 of these cases are against Roman Catholic dioceses across New York, Pfau said. The rest target the Boy Scouts of America and Rockefeller University ― two institutions that have been plagued with allegations that they failed to stop child sexual abuse.
The attorney predicted that Wednesday will be “very emotional” for survivors.
“After feeling like they have no voice in New York state, victims now feel like they have a powerful voice,” Pfau said.
Brian Toale, a 66-year-old who says he was molested by an employee at a Catholic high school in Long Island, holds a photo of himself at 16 years old.
New York once had one of the nation’s most restrictive statutes of limitations on child molestation cases. Survivors in the state had only until age 23 to file civil lawsuits. However, studies suggest it takes much longer for child sexual abuse survivors to realize they were victims of a crime. The average age that victims disclose their abuse is 52. By that time, it was too late for many victims in New York to take legal action.
That changed in February with the passage of the Child Victims Act, which gave victims more time to seek criminal charges or file lawsuits against their abusers. Victims in New York now have until the age of 55 to file civil claims.
The temporary litigation window scheduled to open this week was a key part of the Child Victims Act ― and one of the reasons why the measure was blocked for years by Republican lawmakers and fiercely criticized by religious groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholic leaders argued that the look-back window could financially cripple the church’s charities, parishes and schools. The church spent close to $3 million from 2011 to 2018 lobbying against statute of limitations reform in New York, according to a study conducted by four law firms that represent survivors of clerical abuse.
The state’s bishops dropped their opposition to the Child Victims Act in January, after Democrats took control of the state Legislature and the bill’s sponsors adopted language that made it clear the act applied equally to public and private institutions.
“We don’t know exactly what to expect when the window opens,” Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York archdiocese, told The Associated Press. “We certainly anticipate that there will be lawsuits filed against the archdiocese, as there will be against many other institutions and public entities as well.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the Child Victims Act in New York on Feb. 14.
The Catholic Church and other institutions that care for children ― such as public schools and hospitals ― now face a year of litigation that could force them to hand out millions in legal settlements. When California adopted a similar look-back window in 2003, Catholic dioceses in the state ended up paying $1.2 billion in settlements.
The New York Archdiocese, the second-largest in the country after Los Angeles, has already paid $65 million to over 300 victims through the church’s compensation fund. Victims who used the church fund waive their right to file lawsuits, according to Pfau. They also lose out on the chance to request a subpoena of church records.
After California established a litigation window, the church was forced to release thousands of confidential documents that showed how leaders worked in the past to shield predators.
Several other states have also recently reformed their statutes of limitations for child sex abuse cases. New Jersey will be opening a temporary two-year look-back window for child sex abuse survivors in December.
Pfau said his firm expects to file more than 500 additional lawsuits under New York’s window in the upcoming months, including cases against religious orders, school districts, foster homes and coaches. He said financial compensation is only one of several reasons why child sexual abuse victims want their day in court.
“For many, if not most of my clients, the primary reasons for filing these lawsuits are to tell their stories, protect children in the future and obtain the truth from entities like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts about what they have done over the last decades,” he said.
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