First wave of lawsuits hits as NY opens door to old sex abuse claims

Yancey Roy

August 15, 2019

Originally published in Newsday on August 15, 2019.

ALBANY — The Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and even the late Jeffrey Epstein were among the defendants named in hundreds of sex-abuse lawsuits filed Wednesday, the first day of a special “look back” period in which New York is allowing molestation lawsuits previously blocked by time limits.

Court officials expected lawsuits to be filed in every corner of the state over the next year as terms of the “Child Victims Act” take effect. As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, 427 lawsuits had been submitted across New York, the state Office of Court Administration reported. That included 33 in Nassau County, seven in Suffolk and 169 in New York City. More than 1,000 lawsuits are expected to be filed eventually.

The law, enacted earlier this year after being stalled in Albany for more than a decade, allows a one-year period for molestation claims to be filed, regardless of how long ago it occurred. Previously, New York’s statute of limitations required civil or criminal charges be filed by the victim’s 23rd birthday. It had been considered one of the strictest in the nation.

Beyond the one-year period, the new law also extends the deadline for filing a civil claim to a person’s 55th birthday.

Around New York, law firms and survivors held news conferences Wednesday announcing numbers and details of lawsuits they said they were filing. Many targeted Catholic dioceses. Others named schools, teachers, hospitals and the Boy Scouts, a court official said.

“This is their chance to take some action to begin the recovery of their power and to protect kids in the future better than they were,” attorney Jeff Anderson said after a news conferences with survivors in Albany. “It doesn’t deny the sorrow of what has been, but it is one of the biggest steps in the child-protection movement I’ve been associated with.”

Anderson’s firm and affiliated partners filed 262 lawsuits against clergy from Long Island to Buffalo to Ogdensburg. More are sure to follow against other entities, he said.

“Today, it was the Catholic clergy — but there are many more to follow,” Anderson said. “It says something about the magnitude of the issue.”

“Today is the beginning of accountability for the Catholic Church and other institutions that have turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse in the state of New York. Survivors will no longer be silenced,” New York City attorney Stephen Weiss said in a statement. His firm said it filed 15 cases Wednesday against the church but also represented another 155 victims around the state.

Dioceses said they had been preparing for the one-year window.

“While the ultimate effects of the Child Victims Act on the Diocese of Rockville Centre are its parishes are not yet known, and may not be known for some time, we expect the daily work of the diocese’s many ministries to continue uninterrupted,” the diocese said in a message posted on its website. “Bishop [John O.] Barres and his leadership team at the Diocese of Rockville Centre have been working for months with financial and legal experts to prepare for this day.”

The message also said the diocese took seriously all allegations of sexual abuse, had released to authorities the names of all clergy and employees who had been accused and wished to “see justice, healing and reconciliation prevail.”

The lawsuits included one by a woman who said she was raped by Epstein in 2002 when she was a teenager, according to multiple reports. She is suing the estate of the financier, who died last weekend by an apparent suicide in prison while awaiting trial on child sex-trafficking charges.

The one-year litigation window was perhaps the single biggest reason the Child Victims Act had been stalled in Albany for more than a decade. The Catholic Church and other entities argued against it and a Republican-led state Senate had kept the bill bottled up. But Democrats took power this year after sweeping electoral wins in November and made passing the measure a top priority.

“Survivors deserve an opportunity for healing and those who commit crimes against children must be held accountable,” Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead), one of a wave of newly elected Democrat state legislators who forced the passage of the law, said Wednesday.

The church dropped its opposition after the bill was amended to apply to all public institutions.

Some groups said the new law fell short because it would primarily benefit victims who could sue institutions or wealthy individuals. Law firms are only taking cases that accuse the deep-pocketed, they said, while calling for the state to create a fund for “non-institutional victims.”

“Around ninety percent of survivors will not see a courtroom, since there is little or no incentive for lawyers to take their cases,” said Stephen Carpineta of the New York Progressive Action Network. “They’re suffering and there is no path for them to alleviate that suffering even under the Child Victims Act.”