Other states offer glimpse of ways NY's abuse cases could play out

By Steve Hughes
Times Union
August 24, 2019

Attorney Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates, points to a page of accused clerics from the Diocese of Albany on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, during a press conference in Albany, N.Y. The law firm plans to represent plaintiffs once the state's Child Victims Act goes into effect in August.
Photo by Will Waldron

Victims and advocates fought for years to get the Child Victims Act passed and waited for the date that would allow them to file lawsuits, seeking a measure of justice for abuse that in some cases goes back decades.

If other states are any indication, that fight for justice is just beginning.

This month, over 500 suits were filed in the window afforded by New York's new law. An examination of similar lawsuits in other states shows such cases can take years to resolve. How much the public will eventually learn about the extent of abuse and how it was covered up depends on many factors.

It also shows that settlements from the lawsuits can be a huge financial blow to institutions implicated in the abuse and also drive meaningful changes in their policies toward children.

Attorneys and advocates for the victims say the important thing is that the victims receive a measure of justice and are recognized for the trauma they endured.

“I think for a lot of these folks, it’s validation that, ‘Yes, what happened to me was wrong and the fact that I was a child and could not do anything about it is being understood now and I can now seek redress as an adult,'” said Melissa Breger, a professor at Albany Law School who previously worked with domestic violence victims and victims of childhood abuse.

New York is at least the 15th state to enact legislation that temporarily waives the statute of limitations and allows victims of sexual abuse to file civil suits.

The window doesn’t mean victims have to file lawsuits, it just means they can, said Brian Toale, the head of the Manhattan chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Toale filed a lawsuit on Aug. 14, alleging that the moderator of the amateur radio club at his Catholic high school on Long Island had abused him more than 45 years ago.

“Even if they don’t take advantage of it, even if they don’t go public, it is still a very life-altering step to take,” he said. “To not hold onto the secret, to find someone or someplace to trust enough to begin the process of getting it off your back.”

California passed similar legislation in 2003 as the extent of the Catholic church’s cover-up of decades of child sexual abuse in the U.S. became clear. The legislation resulted in over 1,000 victims filing suit.

It also resulted in some of the largest civil settlements in sexual abuse cases. In the end, California dioceses paid $1.2 billion in settlements and released thousands of confidential documents that showed their leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, sought to shield child molestation by priests from law enforcement, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The archdiocese of Los Angeles alone agreed to pay $660 million to 508 victims in July 2007, settling on the day before Mahony was set to testify in one of the trials.

Attorneys filed 427 lawsuits on the first day of New York’s window. An additional 83 were filed in the week after that. The lawsuits have targeted the state's Roman Catholic diocese, the Boy Scouts, public schools and other organizations.

Even though New York’s law creates a window that gives victims a year to file suit, attorneys and advocates say that may not be enough all victims.

“It takes a tremendous amount of effort and courage for survivors to come forward,” said attorney Irwin Zalkin. “Most survivors never report their abuse. And even knowing this window, it’s hard.”

Zalkin, who was part of the California litigation and is suing the Jehovah's Witnesses in New York alleging abuse, said attorneys and the courts will act to streamline the legal process. He also said many of the cases will be settled through mediation.

"Realistically, if you have thousands of cases it's not possible to get them all tried, at least not quickly," he said.

According to new state court rules released in July, the earliest any trial would begin is about 18 months after the initial lawsuit is filed.

A factor that could slow movement toward trials or settlements is if defendants such as the Boy Scouts or smaller Catholic diocese declare bankruptcy, said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, an attorney who has worked with abuse survivors from USA Gymnastics and other organizations.

Over the last two decades, dioceses in more than 20 U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., San Diego, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., and Tucson, Ariz., were pushed into bankruptcy by the cost of child abuse settlements.

That freezes the civil process as the bankruptcy is sorted out, but it won’t prevent victims from receiving compensation, she said.

“They still got discovery and answers and were eventually compensated,” she said. “Was it a different path? Yes. Is it sometimes slower and frustrating? ... Yes.”

There are already indications bankruptcies may happen in New York.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York sued its insurance carriers last month after the firms said they would not cover claims related to the Child Victims Act. In the past, insurers for the Albany diocese have declined claims, due to the age of the claims.

Albany diocese spokeswoman Mary DeTurris Poust said the diocese was not considering any specific plan of action because it didn’t know the financial impact of the Child Victims Act.

“We will continue to evaluate and assess as cases come in,” she said.

The diocese previously reached settlements with nearly 100 survivors of sexual abuse whose cases were beyond the statute of limitations, paying more than $9 million in compensation and counseling, DeTurris Poust said.

As the Boy Scouts of America faces its own lawsuits, Mark D. Switzer, executive director of the  Twin Rivers Council, which includes the Capital Region, said the financial impact of any litigation and settlements would land on the national organization.

He did not answer if the council had recently settled any cases but said the council apologized to anyone who was abused while in the Boy Scouts.

Switzer added that the Twin Rivers Council urged anyone who had been abused during their time in Scouts to come forward.

“We believe we have a social and moral responsibility to equitably compensate all victims of past abuse in our organization and we are working to determine the best way to achieve that,” he said.

Toale and others who spent years pushing for the Child Victims Act say the issue is less about compensation than accountability and preventing future attacks on children.

The act of filing the lawsuit was a bit of a reality check, he said.

“I had never really thought I was going to sue until I got involved in the issue,” he said. “That morning I got a text from my attorney saying, ‘It’s done, it’s been filed’ and that was like, ‘OK, I guess we’re doing this’.”


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.