ALBANY, N.Y. — The Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, schools and hospitals, and the late financier Jeffrey Epstein are some of the targets named in a flurry of sex abuse lawsuits filed Wednesday in New York as the state began accepting cases that had been blocked by an old statute of limitations.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits were expected as plaintiffs rush to take advantage of the one-year litigation window, created by state lawmakers this year to give alleged abuse victims a second chance to sue over abuse that, in many cases, happened decades ago.
Those suing Wednesday include a woman who says she was raped by Epstein as a teenager in 2002. She is suing Epstein’s estate and three of his associates.
Other high-profile lawsuits filed Wednesday include one from 45 former Rockefeller University Hospital patients who say a renowned endocrinologist molested hundreds of boys over more than three decades.
Hundreds of other people sued the Church or one of its several New York dioceses. Among them is Peter Vajda, who said a religious brother molested him when he attended a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx in the early 1950s.
The state’s statute of limitations had been among the nation’s most restrictive before state lawmakers extended it earlier this year for new cases.
Institutions that have long cared for children — such as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, as well as private and public schools and hospitals — are girding for what could be a devastating financial blow. A similar law passed in 2002 in California resulted in Catholic dioceses there paying $1.2 billion in legal settlements.
A compensation fund for sex abuse victims set up by the New York Archdiocese in 2016 has paid out $65 million to 323 victims, the archdiocese says. Those victims have waived their right to file lawsuits. The archdiocese is also suing more than two dozen insurance companies in an effort to compel them to cover abuse claims, anticipating that insurers won’t pay the numerous claims filed during the litigation window.
“We can’t predict what the numbers might be. We have been preparing,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, which is the nation’s second largest after Los Angeles.
Brian Toale, one of those who pushed lawmakers to approve the litigation window, said the lawsuits are as much about empowering victims as financial compensation. Toale, 66, said he was molested by an employee at a Catholic high school he attended on Long Island.
Toale’s suit against the Catholic Church was filed early Wednesday.
“Every time a survivor comes forward, there’s another survivor who finds the strength,” Toale said.
The law creating the litigation window, the Child Victims Act, passed this year following more than a decade of debate in Albany. The new statute of limitations for molestation gives new victims until age 55 to file lawsuits and until age 28 to seek criminal charges, compared with 23 under the old statute.
The litigation window had been the sticking point to getting the legislation approved. Major institutions includes some Catholic leaders, argued against it, warning that it could cause catastrophic financial harm to any organization that cares for children.
Opposition to the bill dropped this year after Democrats won control of the state Senate from Republican lawmakers who had been blocking the bill from receiving a vote. With Democrats in charge of the chamber, the bill passed unanimously.
Advocates, mental health experts and victims themselves say it often takes years for people who were molested as children to speak out about their trauma, even to a loved one. Sometimes victims say they didn’t think they’d be believed if they accused their priest, teacher, scoutmaster or another respected adult. Sometimes they say they felt some responsibility for the abuse, even though they were children at the time. Others say the shame, embarrassment and fear were simply too much to overcome.
New England dioceses join reporting system for sexual abuse
N.H. — Several dioceses in New England are joining an independent
system for reporting misconduct or abuse by Church leaders.
system, started earlier this year by the Archdiocese of Boston, was
joined Wednesday by the Diocese of Manchester in New Hampshire, the
Diocese of Burlington in Vermont, the Diocese of Portland in Maine as
well as several dioceses in Massachusetts.
Hosted on the
EthicsPoint website, the system is confidential and allows alleged
victims to file abuse claims anonymously. All claims will be reported to
law enforcement and apostolic nuncio as necessary. The status of the
claims can be tracked.
— Associated Press