NY legislation could provide a chance at justice for survivors of abuse at SU

Daily Orange - Syracuse University Student Newspaper [Syracuse NY]

December 5, 2021

By Michael Sessa

When Robert Bender arrived at Brewster Hall in 1980, Conrad Mainwaring was the first person he met.

“He was the face of Syracuse University,” Bender said.

Mainwaring, who worked in a residence hall at the time, introduced himself while leading Bender and his mother up the stairs. When he learned that Bender was a gymnast, Mainwaring, a former Olympian who was studying and coaching at SU, became excited, Bender said.

In the following weeks, Mainwaring watched Bender practice at Archbold Gymnasium. He told stories about the Olympics. Eventually, Mainwaring sexually assaulted Bender.

But unlike the survivors who have sued SU for employing the man who abused them as children, Bender has no legal recourse. He is just six months older than some of the plaintiffs currently battling the university in court, but because Bender was 18 when Mainwaring began abusing him, he cannot sue.

Survivors, legislators and advocacy groups hope the Adult Survivors Act will change that. If passed, the act would open a one-year window that would allow adult survivors to sue institutions involved in their sexual abuse.

“It is for a chance at stating in public, in a court of law, what happened to them,” said Linda Rosenthal, a New York State Assembly member who helped introduce the act in 2019. “It is really to give them an opportunity to state their case, to say this happened to me, and also to serve as a warning for possible future victims.”

Rosenthal became involved with ASA after spending more than 13 years working to pass the Child Victims Act, she said. The CVA, which lengthened civil statutes of limitations, also opened a one-year window for survivors of child sexual abuse to sue. The window was eventually extended an additional year due to the pandemic.

More than 10,000 complaints were filed in the two-year period after New York passed the CVA in 2019. The defendants include thousands of Catholic clergy, more than a thousand Boy Scout leaders and dozens of teachers, coaches and others. As the number of claims climbed, four Catholic dioceses in the state — Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Long Island’s Rockville Centre — have declared bankruptcy, as have the Boy Scouts of America.

“After that, it was just natural to go onto the next group of people who needed their shot at justice, and those are people who were over 18 at the time of their abuse, and that’s what the ASA addresses,” Rosenthal said.

Suing institutions that played a role in abuse is one of the only ways to ensure powerful entities change their behavior, said Michael Polenberg, the vice president of government affairs at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit survivor services organization based in New York City.

“If they’re not held responsible for covering up abuse or hiding abuse or failing to take action if abuse was known, there’s not much incentive for them to change,” Polenberg said. “The change that we’ve seen, these changes happen because of civil liability. These changes happen because somebody has been held to account and brought to justice.”

But moving the ASA forward has proven difficult. Although the CVA faced opposition — largely from powerful institutions with a vested interest in fending off potential lawsuits — legislators and others advocating for the ASA have had a harder time identifying its adversaries.

“There isn’t that same kind of defined cast of characters opposing the bill, at least not that we can tell,” Polenberg said. “But there are some misperceptions among some members of the assembly that, while they may understand why a child may not have been able to come forward before the statute ran out, an adult should have known.”

When the assembly’s next session begins in January, Rosenthal expects more legislator visits. Speaking face-to-face with survivors will help legislators understand why some adult survivors don’t immediately disclose their abuse, she said.

Bender, along with other adult survivors of abuse, has appeared in a public service announcement produced by Safe Horizon to support the legislation. He also co-wrote an opinion piece about the ASA with Robert Druger, one of the men suing SU for its role in his abuse by Mainwaring in the 1980s.

Bender said he is unsure if he will pursue legal action against SU if the act were to become law, but he’d like the opportunity. Passing the act would bring New York closer to a set of laws informed by the realities of sexual abuse and responsive to the roles institutions played in providing abusers like Mainwaring access to the people they abused, Bender said.

“It’s fair to hold the university accountable as an entity, regardless of whether it’s 1960 or 2000, because it lives on — its reputation and its history — it builds on itself,” Bender said. “(Mainwaring) was a representative of Syracuse University at the dorm, and he certainly had an official status there. And he benefited from having that status, that position at the dorm. He had students coming in and out of there all the time.”

SU condemns sexual misconduct, assault and harassment and has policies and procedures in place to support the reporting and investigation of allegations, said Sarah Scalese, senior associate vice president of university communications, in a statement. “We work aggressively, along with our community members, to create a campus environment dedicated to the prevention of sexual violence and that is supportive of survivors who come forward to report any act of sexual misconduct.”

Rosenthal said she understands the legal and financial interests that can make it difficult for large institutions, like SU, to admit wrongdoing. She hopes the ASA might convince leaders to prioritize safety over money and reputation, she said.

“Ultimately, those who are fighting this have to live with themselves,” Rosenthal said. “You can come clean, admit your mistakes, maybe even have to pay. But then you can move forward with a clear, bright future, not under the cloud of having enabled an abuser — having protected an abuser — choosing an abuser over vulnerable students and young people.”

Contact Michael: msessa@syr.edu | @MichaelSessa3