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A window of justice: two years and 9,000 child sex abuse claims later

Only hours remain for victims of long-ago sex abuse suffered as children to sue their assailants in New York — a two-year window doubled by the pandemic.

(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 billboards in Times Square about New York's Child Victims Act feature state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou (top) and Brian Toale, both of whom have come forward about surviving sexual abuse as children. (Courthouse News photo/Amanada Ottaway)

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.

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Hamilton noted that the look back brought stories that have not been told before to the surface. Communities learn about organizations dangerous for children, she said.

“We can’t find out any other way how the systems in our culture have endangered children,” Hamilton said. “The criminal prosecutions focus on very specific crimes to specific individuals. Only these civil lawsuits let the victims get the discovery that shows us the pattern.”

Attorney Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates called the New York window a massive transfer of power, a tipping point.

“This has been a titanic shift in the balance of power by reason of the opportunity of so many survivors to expose so many predators past and present and thus protect all the communities across the state,” Anderson said.

Anderson's career working on sexual abuse cases dates back to the 1980s when he represented a man suing the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  

His firm is representing about 1,870 Child Victims Act cases, he said. And he’s got about 100 people working on fling new ones.

“It’s been the biggest lift and the most, I would say, hopeful challenge that we’ve ever been given in this space,” Anderson said. 

Finding the courts, so far, to have been responsive and trauma aware, he highlighted one judge who allowed plaintiffs to proceed anonymously. Anderson said the law directed judges to respond to these cases quickly, and they have.

But cases have been mired in Bankruptcy Court. Three Catholic dioceses, Rochester, Buffalo and Rockville Centre, Anderson noted, declared bankruptcy. It’s a forum that is designed for commercial creditors, he said, as it’s more transactional and serves to insulate the institution while some victims want more than that, more justice, and for the institutions to change their ways.

But still, the state courts have been able to collect some answers for the litigants. About 60 days ago, Anderson said they deposed an octogenarian bishop to preserve his testimony for trial.

The deposition — currently sealed — lasted five days and was a powerful testimony, Anderson said.

The Archdiocese of New York did not return a request for comment.

The Boy Scouts emailed a statement that describes the financial restructuring it began last year to ensure it can continue to carry out its mission while also compensating survivors who endured abuse while in a scouting program.

To provide a resource to survivors, the organization noted that it has partnered with the organization 1in6.

“We understand that nothing the BSA does as an organization will undo the pain that survivors have endured, but we have taken important steps in an effort to support survivors’ healing process and prevent abuse,” the Boy Scouts said.  

Activists from Safe Horizon are joined by childhood sexual abuse survivors at a 2019 press conference about the Child Victims Act, a law that extends the time limits for survivors of child sex abuse to seek justice. Among those pictured are U.S. Olympic speed skater Bridie Farrell is seen in the center wearing a blue dress. New York Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte is pictured far right, beside Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and state Senator Alessandra Biaggi. (Courthouse News photo/Amanda Ottaway)

Earlier this week, Gary Greenberg filed a lawsuit against Cohoes Memorial Hospital alleging that in 1967, an orderly sexually abused him when he was 7, at one point holding him over an elevator shaft. That orderly, the complaint said, was Louis Van Wie who confessed in the late 1990s to sexually abusing more than 300 children.

Greenberg, who formed a political action committee to lobby for the passage of the Child Victims Act, says what he feared would happen has now come to pass: “We have thousands of victims who have not been able to file a claim and will not be able to file a claim because they call lawyers, some 10 to 15 lawyers, and since their case didn’t have an institution or didn’t have a wealthy abuser, the lawyer wouldn’t take their case,” Greenberg said, noting that many attorneys are working on commission.

Some attorneys may take these cases on retainer, charging tens of thousands of dollars — money individuals may not have. Other individuals chose to bring their claims on their own.

According to court records, at least eight individuals decided to proceed without an attorney and file Child Victims Act claims pro se.

As the window comes to a close, other survivors such as Charles Bailey, who leads a SNAP chapter in the Syracuse area, said the closing of the window is a sad day, given the pace of people who have filed in recent days.

“Because as the window has shown, that being open, more and more people have come forward and more and more perpetrators have been exposed. And as soon as you close the door on that the exposure of the perpetrators is going to kind of disappear,” Bailey said.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal meanwhile said she is gratified that the bill she introduced in the Legislature could grant survivors’ access to courts where they did not have it in the past.

“I’m sure if the window were extended further there’d be many more cases,” Rosenthal said. "But right now, I’m very gratified that I and the legislature were able to extend to survivors a way forward, because prior to the window opening, they were just left adrift, no avenues for justice."

It took more than 13 years to pass the law, and Rosenthal introduced the legislation once the lawmaker who championed the law had been voted out of office.

But at the same time, there’s a sea change.

“A lot of people have learned now that they have to educate their children, and people are doing it, educate their children about what is proper, what is allowed … that their bodies are their own not for someone to mess with," Rosenthal said, "And so I think a lot of those lessons have seeped into society.”

Follow Daniel Jackson on Twitter.

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