New York Sex-Abuse Law Brings Forth Hundreds of New Cases

Wall Street Journal

By Corinne Ramey and Tom McGinty

September 29, 2019

Suits describing alleged childhood trauma emerge after state loosens restrictions on sex-abuse cases

One woman alleged that an elementary-school teacher repeatedly put his hand up her skirt while hidden behind a chalkboard, sometimes hitting her with a plastic bat. A man accused a social-service worker tasked with driving him to court of abusing him in a car. Another man claimed that while he was hospitalized at age 7, staffers sodomized him with a broomstick.

These are among the alleged victims in more than 700 lawsuits filed since Aug. 14, when the state of New York opened a one-year windowduring which people who say they were sexually abused as children can sue their alleged abusers no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. The law has already had financial impacts, with the Diocese of Rochester filing for bankruptcy earlier this month, citing legal costs and settlements.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of court records found 734 lawsuits filed through Sept. 23, many filled with graphic descriptions of childhood trauma. Defendants include hospitals, churches, summer camps, as well as Catholic, Jewish, Quaker and public schools throughout the state. There are also baseball leagues and music schools, after-school clubs and a martial-arts association.

Many lawsuits involve institutions that have previously been accused of abuse. About 550 lawsuits name one of the state’s Catholic dioceses, 40 name the Boy Scouts and 11 name Rockefeller University, which has said a former doctor, who died in 2007, abused patients.

The Catholic church has taken measures to address abuse, including setting up funds to compensate victims. Rockefeller University has apologized to victims of the former doctor. The Boy Scouts said that the organization encourages victims to come forward and that it has changed policy to safeguard against abuse.

Of New York’s 62 counties, the eighth most-populous, Erie, had the most cases filed—196. Those include 156 naming the Diocese of Buffalo as the defendant and 28 against the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District, where a former fifth-grade teacher has been accused of serial abuse.

A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Buffalo said new allegations would be investigated. The diocese has said that since 2003 it has taken many steps to protect children. A spokesman for the school district said it takes misconduct allegations seriously and has been in communication with appropriate state authorities.

The bulk of the suits are against institutions, which often have insurance or other funds to pay settlements. The outliers are 16 lawsuits in which people have sued only individuals, including fathers, an older brother and a grandfather. In one lawsuit, a man accused his parents of abusing him in their Staten Island home beginning at age 3. When the man reported it at school, his mother brutally beat him, the complaint says.

For some institutions named in lawsuits, the one-year window without statutes of limitations has proved hard to navigate. Many don’t deny abuse may have occurred, but say alleged perpetrators are gone and the organizations are under new leadership.

“As politically correct as it may seem on one side of the fence, once you are on the accused side of the fence, it’s debilitating,” said Arthur Aidala, a lawyer who works with the Diocese of Brooklyn, which has been named in 84 lawsuits.

He said most electronic records of modern life— Twitter , Facebook , cellphones, text messages—didn’t exist at the time of the alleged abuse in the suits. “That makes it difficult to figure out what the truth is,” Mr. Aidala said.

A spokeswoman said the Diocese of Brooklyn can’t comment on pending litigation but has worked tirelessly for nearly 20 years to ensure the protection of children.

Lawyers who represent victims say they have faced unexpected challenges because of their clients recounting deeply personal experiences, often for the first time. Paul Pennock, chair of the sex-abuse practice at Weitz & Luxenberg PC, said his firm uses social workers to vet cases and talk to alleged victims.

Many lawsuits, dating to the 1960s and ‘70s, are vague as to time and place. Others contain specific details.

“Plaintiff recalls the smell of [the defendant’s] aftershave,” says a complaint recounting alleged abuse at a New York City public school in 1983. A spokesman for the city Law Department declined to comment.

In another lawsuit, filed against a school district in Erie County, the plaintiff says a female teacher accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s “would lift up Plaintiff’s shirt to clean her glasses and pin her against the wall.”

The one-year window closes in August 2020.

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