(CN) — The lawsuits across New York state went from a dribble to a deluge over the past several weeks: individuals saying they were the victims of decades-old sexual abuse, seeking to hold those they say were responsible finally accountable in a court of law.
On Monday, 197 lawsuits were filed in several New York courts against groups such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church. Clerks fielded 309 cases Tuesday, according to Courthouse News’ examination of civil court records. Wednesday brought 321 and Thursday 291.
New York, once a state with one of the shortest deadlines in which to bring a claim of child sex abuse, changed its laws in 2019 with passage of the Child Victims Act after years of lobbying. While survivors of child sexual abuse now have until the age 55 to launch a civil lawsuit, the law also cracked open a one-year window so individuals who waited too long to sue under the old statute of limitations could bring claims of sexual abuse committed years in the past.
When New York extended the window a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the courts saw about 3,000 lawsuits citing claims under the law. As the window closes for good Saturday at 11:59 p.m., New York civil courts have collected about 9,200 Child Victims Act lawsuits in total.
But apart from filing, plaintiffs who brought claims so far have made little headway in their cases. Some of the cases are being wound into bankruptcy proceedings already underway for a few dioceses of the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. For others, they are navigating a court system slowed to crawl by Covid-19 rules.
Two years ago, Brian Toale stood in Times Square and announced the opening of the look-back window. On one iconic billboard hanging above the square, the public service announcement he helped create played.
"Are you a survivor of childhood sex abuse like me? We can now seek justice in the courts," the digital poster announces, urging pedestrians to contact the group Safe Horizons for more information.
Toale is the Manhattan leader of another group called SNAP — short for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church and his former high school on the first day the window opened in 2019. When the diocese filed for bankruptcy, the proceedings moved over to federal bankruptcy court.
Now that the window closed, Toale said the real work and real disclosure is just beginning. The process to bring these cases to trail has “been coming to a boil for a long time now,” and the increased attention will uncover what has been only just being disclosed, Toale said.
“Many survivors don’t want to have anything to do with settlements or judgments or anything. They just want some kind of acknowledgement that this happened to them, that it wasn’t their fault and it was wrong. That is … the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a survivor,” Toale said.
Marci Hamilton, law professor at University of Pennsylvania and founder of the think tank Child USA, said the act has shown the public the scope of child sexual abuse and gives the survivors an opportunity to be validated by the courts.
While New York is not the first state to hold a look-back window, the response and the number of cases filed in the window has far outstripped the others created by a handful of other states. For instance, a window California opened in 2003 brought in about 1,150 cases, Hamilton said.
According to analysis of the lawsuits performed by Child USA, a little more than half of the lawsuits name a religious institution. And when lawsuits name a school, about 54% have been Catholic schools, 33% public schools and 6.7% Jewish schools. The group observed some of the busiest filing of Child Victims Act claims in Albany County and in New York County, which covers Manhattan.