More Than 50 Child Victims Act Lawsuits Filed against Albany Diocese
By Cayla Harris
June 15, 2020
ALBANY – More than 50 Child Victims Act lawsuits were filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany on Monday, alleging abuse by dozens of clerics as far back as 1957.
The cases mark the latest round of abuse complaints after courts temporarily closed during the coronavirus pandemic, blocking non-essential filings for about two months. The lawsuits allege abuse as recently as 1994 in parishes across the Capital Region and also target 20 previously unidentified clerics or diocese employees.
A handful detail new allegations against individuals already labeled by the church as "credibly accused" of molesting children.
The diocese faces more than 100 cases lodged under the Child Victims Act, which last August opened a one-year "look-back" period allowing survivors to file previously time-barred cases against individuals who had allegedly sexually abused them as children. As courts shut down during the pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order prolonging the window to January 2021.
The state Legislature last month passed a bill that would extend the retroactive period to August 2021, a proposal that awaits Cuomo's signature. More than 2,200 cases have been filed under the act so far, according to state court data.
Fifty-two cases were filed Monday by two law firms – Manhattan-based Jeff Anderson & Associates and Guilderland's LaFave, Wein & Frament – that have represented several other Child Victims Act plaintiffs statewide. The complaints represent about one third of all CVA cases filed in the state Supreme Court in Albany County.
"These are people who have finally been given a voice after years of having been silenced," said attorney Cynthia LaFave.
The most recent allegation claims that Father Charles A. Gaffigan abused an unnamed child who was approximately 6 to 8 years old, from 1992 to 1994, while he attended the Church Of Holy Infancy in Lake Luzerne in Warren County. Gaffigan died in 2015, according to his obituary.
The oldest allegations are detailed in a complaint accusing Father Ignatius Rossi of "unpermitted sexual contact" from 1957 to 1960 against an unnamed student at St. Anthony Padua Church in Troy, when the child was 11 to 14 years old. Rossi died in 1989.
Other allegations are similar, listing vague abuse accusations against adults who taught or served as religious leaders in the Capital Region decades ago. There are some repeat offenders named in the complaints, including some individuals who have been placed on the Albany Diocese's list of "credibly accused" clergy.
Three of the complaints filed Monday name former priest Gary Mercure, who was sent to prison in Massachusetts in 2011 for raping two altar boys in the 1980s. He faces at least two decades behind bars.
Two lawsuits allege abuse by former priest Dozia Wilson in the 1980s and claim that diocese leaders knew of accusations against him as early as 1976 – but decided to send him to Boston instead of removing him from the ministry. He was dismissed from the Archdiocese of Boston in 1979 after facing additional accusations, and then returned to Albany before being expelled in 1991. Wilson, whose whereabouts are unknown, could not be reached for comment.
"The diocese takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously," Albany Diocese spokeswoman Mary DeTurris Poust said, adding that the diocese has not yet been served with the lawsuits. "Behind every claim is a suffering person who needs our compassion and assistance."
Albany Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who is also temporarily leading the scandal-plagued Buffalo Diocese, "remains committed to providing assistance to survivors while allegations are being investigated and beyond," she said. Before the coronavirus shut down religious gatherings, Scharfenberger held several special services for survivors of abuse.
Both LaFave and attorney Jeff Anderson said they have not received discovery materials from the Albany Diocese on cases they had already filed but attributed some of the delay to the pandemic. The diocese has otherwise been cooperative in the litigation, they said.
"While we are critical of the past practices employed by the Catholic diocese in Albany ... the way they are being handled presently, there is no criticism," Anderson said, adding: "We have confidence that the Catholic bishop in Albany and the lawyers have taken this with the gravity it deserves."
A 53rd case filed Monday, but not included in the package lodged by Anderson and LaFave, alleges Father Joseph Keffer abused a group of four or five young boys while they attended Sunday school at St. Mary's in Waterford in the early 1980s. According to the complaint, Keffer interacted with the group – including the anonymous plaintiff, then about 7 or 8 years old – while helping select children to serve as alter boys.
He allegedly led the boys to a back room, where he told them to line up and put their heads down before fondling their genitals. The petition claims the priest told the plaintiff that "if he told anyone about what was happening, that God would punish him."