Child sexual abuse survivors deal with bankruptcy, old evidence after laws extend statute of limitations
By Kevin Mccoy
February 24, 2020
|This photo shows Richard Cardillo during the 1970s, when he was a student at Iona Preparatory High School in New Rochelle, New York. He is one of many child sexual abuse survivors who have filed lawsuits against Roman Catholic institutions.|
Raul Diaz envied the kids from his New York City neighborhood who’d joined the Boy Scouts of America during the 1960s. Hoping to go on camping trips, too, he convinced his mother to let him sign up.
The decision led to a half-century-long saga — not of pitching tents, paddling canoes and earning merit badges, but of anguishing over the sexual abuse he suffered.
Diaz, now 60, is among thousands of people who have taken advantage of sweeping legal changes that extend statutes of limitations to allow the abused to sue their attackers.
“I thought I would never see the day when I would be able to seek justice,” he said.
Although lawsuits like his may provide catharsis, they offer no promise of speedy legal relief.
In some cases, independent corroborating evidence is gone or nonexistent, making it difficult to prove plaintiffs' claims.
The alleged assailants may have died, leaving the accusers to sue the Boy Scouts, religious organizations, schools, foster care providers and other children-focused groups they believe enabled their abusers. That legal strategy requires plaintiffs to prove the organizations had reason to know about the abusers' conduct.
Additionally, the Boy Scouts of America, nearly two dozen Catholic dioceses and three religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection, which could shield some of their assets and limit how much money victims ultimately receive.
And the statutes that allow some of these lawsuits may not stand.A Catholic diocese in New York is challenging the constitutionality of the law that extended deadlines for survivors of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits.
Diaz is undeterred. “I’m in it for the long haul,” he said.
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Diaz, a truck driver who now lives in Allen, Texas, is one of many Americans who struggle with sexual abuse inflicted when they were children or young teens.
Although there are no precise counts, an annual federal government report on child maltreatment hints at its prevalence. The 2018 report cited 47,124 cases nationwide in which child protective service agencies found sexual abuse without any other alleged mistreatment. The total represents nearly 7% of all the reports, which also track cases of neglect, physical abuse and psychological mistreatment.
The report also listed 339 reports of child sex trafficking in 18 states.
The data doesn't include complaints made to anyone outside of child protective service agencies. And with research showing many children stay silent, sometimes for years, some cases don't get reported.
Diaz said he was long among those who said nothing.
Roughly a decade ago, he explored filing a lawsuit. But he learned that New York's statute of limitations barred cases involving decades-old allegations of abuse.
That changed last year when the state enacted a one-year filing extension for such lawsuits. With the support of his wife, whom he'd confided in, Diaz filed a lawsuit naming the Boy Scouts of America and its Greater New York councils as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges Diaz was abused by John Rosenquist, a Boy Scout leader or volunteer. Rosenquist had been a scouting representative at the former Church of the Holy Agony in the East Harlem neighborhood where Diaz grew up, according to previously confidential scouting records. Diaz said that's where he encountered him.
"He started paying more attention to me," Diaz said. During camping trips, "he would sneak into my tent late at night and abuse me."
Rosenquist was permanently barred from scouting in 1990 after he was accused of sexually abusing another scout, the records show.
Attorneys for Diaz said Rosenquist is deceased.
Diaz said the abuse started when he was 10 and continued until he turned 13. He didn't tell his mother, who was a single parent, because "this was a person of authority" whom he believed somehow might become his legal father one day.
Diaz said the abuse led to years of alcohol and substance abuse as he battled guilt and feelings of low self-worth. He managed to break free of that spiral, and now he views the lawsuit as a way to close a crippling chapter in his life.
Lawmakers respond to growing awareness of child sexual abuse
Over the past several years, the #MeToo movement and allegations against entertainer Bill Cosby, Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein, and singer R. Kelly have stirred the nation and raised awareness of sexual abuse.
"The victim's account is no longer discounted the way it was 20 or 30 years ago," said Michael Pfau, a partner at the Seattle-based Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala Law Firm, which has represented scores of sexual abuse victims.
New York, 15 other states and the District of Columbia in recent years have revived long-expired statutes of limitations that enable victims of childhood abuse to go to court, according to CHILD USA, an organization focused on preventing child abuse and neglect.
Eleven states are considering similar bills, according to a report the group issued in early 2020.
In New York, the law has opened a floodgate. So far 1,577 lawsuits, including Diaz's, have been filed, according to the state's court system. Hundreds were filed the day the law went into effect.
In New Jersey, 110 abuse lawsuits were filed in December and January, the first two months after the state extended its deadline. All but four were filed on behalf of people who were children at the time of the alleged abuse and would have been barred from suing, said MaryAnn Spoto, a spokeswoman for the state's court system.
Boy Scout bankruptcy will change how victims' claims are handled
However, legal hurdles have emerged.
Bankruptcy filings by the Boy Scouts of America, New York's Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and other organizations have put all ongoing sexual abuse lawsuits on hold.
Lawsuits against the Boy Scouts, for example, will be transferred to the federal court handling its bankruptcy case. Attorneys for abuse survivors will file claims in the bankruptcy, said Corey Stern, an attorney at the Levy Konigsberg LLP law firm in New York City, which has 30 to 40 cases against the Boy Scouts of America.
Victims who haven't yet sued the scouting organization will be able to file claims that will have the same legal standing as existing claims.
Typically, the claims are assessed by a creditors committee appointed by the bankruptcy court or a trustee. The committee determines how much money is available and how to pay the claims equitably while satisfying the organizations' secured creditors.
"It becomes more of an allocation of assets issue" rather than a typical trial battle in state court, said Jennifer Freeman, a senior counsel at the Marsh Law Firm PLLC, which represents scores of abuse survivors.
The process typically results in payments that are somewhat lower than the amounts victims might have won in trial courts.
Resolving the claims in a complex bankruptcy such as the Boy Scouts will take time. "This one could take decades to resolve, to be honest," said Stern.
Nonetheless, Diaz said he'll continue his battle for emotional closure. "I want to see the Boy Scouts held responsible for what they've done," he said.
Victims seek decades-old evidence
The complexity of sexual abuse lawsuits is stressful for victims, said Marci Hamilton, the chief executive officer of CHILD USA. She recommends "seeing a therapist before seeing a lawyer."
Richard Cardillo says he's up for the legal challenge. Now 61, Cardillo says he was sexually abused in the 1970s when he was a 16-year-old at Iona Preparatory School, a Roman Catholic high school in New Rochelle, New York.
He and other sexual abuse survivors filed a lawsuit in August after New York extended its statute of limitations. Cardillo's part of the case focuses on the high school and the New York Archdiocese as defendants.
'A culture of covering up':Former Iona Prep student alleges abuse by Irish Christian Brothers
The lawsuit claims Cardillo's abuser was Brother Salvatore Ferro, a former teacher at the school who was a member of the Congregation of Christian Brothers religious order. Ferro is believed to be alive, but he could not be reached for comment.
Cardillo said he shared a small part of a $16 million settlement the Christian Brothers reached with sexual abuse survivors in 2013.
His current lawsuit argues that the school and the archdiocese were legally accountable for Ferro and his actions. Proving that could be difficult.
The filing states that Cardillo's parents allowed him to attend the high school "based on the representations of the Archdiocese and Iona Prep that Brother Ferro was safe and trustworthy."
Iona Prep and the Archdiocese "knew or should have known that Brother Ferro was a known sexual abuser of children," the lawsuit alleges.
A ProPublica database of U.S. Catholic clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse or misconduct says Ferro was identified in at least two sexual abuse cases that were filed in a Christian Brothers bankruptcy filing.
"It's mind-boggling to me. This man was reported over and over again," said Vincent Nappo, an attorney at the Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala Law Firm who represents Cardillo.
Records documenting that claim, if they still exist, could help support Cardillo's claim that the high school and the archdiocese should be held responsible.
Sexual abuse survivors and their families marshaled similar arguments in lawsuits against The Rockefeller University, a prominent biomedical research center in New York City.
The lawsuits alleged that Dr. Reginald Archibald, a research endocrinologist who for decades treated children who were small for their age, also sexually abused many of them.
In a 2018 outreach letter, the university alerted former patients that it had learned of credible allegations of sexual abuse against Archibald in 2004.
However, Freeman, the Marsh Law Firm attorney, said its investigators learned Archibald had been the subject of a grand jury investigation for sexual abuse in 1960 and 1961. The investigation, conducted when Archibald worked at the research center, was closed without any indictment, Freeman said.
She said the university should have known about that investigation and conducted its own review. That might have spared other children from abuse, she said.
Archibald died in 2007. The university reached confidential settlements with more than 200 victims before New York extended its statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors, according to court records and a New York Post report that cited information from the plaintiffs' attorneys.
Catholic diocese says deadline extension is unconstitutional
The Diocese of Rockville Centre, which represents Catholics in central and eastern Long Island, has taken a different approach with the dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits it faces under New York's extended filing deadline.
In a broad court motion, attorneys for the diocese argued that New York's enactment of the law violated the state's Constitution.
Attorneys cited a 2006 case in which New York's highest court ruled that more than 40 people who'd been barred from filing sexual abuse claims against clergy members were "aware of the sexual abuse he or she suffered" and "had sufficient knowledge" to file lawsuits during the normal statute of limitations.
Church fights back:Long Island Catholic diocese sues to end Child Victims Act
Those who sued under the Child Victims Act knew what had happened to them and could have gone to court before the legal deadline expired, the diocese argued.
Attorneys for child sexual abuse survivors have challenged that argument. The dispute is expected to wind through the New York court system in the months and even years to come.
If the Diocese of Rockville Centre prevails, the outcome could upend Child Victims Act cases pending against Catholic dioceses in New York.
Cardillo acknowledges the legal fight will likely be long.
"We have to change the system that allowed these things to happen," he said after recounting how his abuse shadowed him from high school to his 60s. "I do think change will happen."