Hundreds of child sex abuse claims filed on first day of New York's Child Victims Act




 

ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Thousands of New Yorkers who were molested or sexually abused as children have been waiting for years - in many cases, for decades - for their day in court.

That day has arrived - and it began with a stunning barrage of lawsuits. By 5 a.m., lawyers had taken advantage of 24-hour electronic filing to submit 200 child sexual abuse lawsuits.

The number had climbed to about 350 legal claims by 8:30 a.m., and risen again to 385 by noon.

A one-year window for filing old civil claims for child sexual abuse opened at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. The window was created by the state Legislature's adoption in January of the Child Victims Act, which makes it easier for accusers to seek criminal and civil sanction of their abusers.

It shows signs of being a legal free-for-all.

Thirty-six lawsuits had been filed in Monroe County, 35 of them against the Catholic Diocese of Rochester and one against the Webster Central School District and a former teacher and coach there.

In New York City, 154 suits had been filed by 12 noon. Erie County had the highest single-county total, with 101.

Albany had 29, Nassau 25, St. Lawrence 15 and Onondaga 11. Westchester, Orange and Tompkins each had just one, while Rockland, Broome and Chemung had none.

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The vast majority of filings named Catholic priests as the abusers and sought damages from the diocese and parishes in which the offenses allegedly occurred.

But the Boy Scouts of America were named in at least four suits and Rockefeller University, where Dr. Reginald Archibald is accused of abusing hundreds of boys, was named in two.

Two religious faiths other than Catholic were sued, as were at least five public schools.

A man who filed suit in Suffolk County accused his uncle of sexually abusing him, and a case in Manhattan featured a woman suing her older brother.

Jennifer Danielle Araoz filed suit in Manhattan against the estate of pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in jail last weekend, and his one-time girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell.

Araoz said Epstein sexually assaulted her when she was age 15 and 16, enabled by Maxwell and three other woman who are not identified in the court papers.

A dozen or more law firms that specialize in sexual abuse cases have been signing up clients for months. Based on statements by some of those firms earlier this week, it seems likely that 2,000 to 3,000 lawsuits will be filed in the coming year.

Abusers of many descriptions - priests, scout leaders, camp counselors, teachers, sports coaches and doctors - will be named in lawsuits, as will the institutions for which they worked.

Many of the suits will be filed by accusers who have never come forward before, and some of their legal actions will target alleged abusers who had previously never been publicly named.

Other cases will be filed by people who went to court in the past but saw their cases dismissed under New York's old statute of limitations, which required victims to file suit no later than age 23.

But experts say victims often don't come to terms with what happened to them until later in life, by which time it was too late to seek damages from those who had harmed them.

The Child Victims Act, or CVA, extended the statute of limitations for future acts of child sexual abuse so that victims have until age 55 to bring suit. The statute for criminal prosecution changed as well, adding five years to the window of time within which charges can be brought.

And it carved out the one-year window, which has no age or time limit. Lawyers say there could be legal actions filed by people who were abused 50 or 60 years ago.

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Victims spent years lobbying New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to open up the look-back window, arguing that the state's statute of limitations for child sex crimes was unnecessarily restrictive and didn't account for those who take years to process the abuse they suffered.

What remains to be seen is the financial impact of the CVA litigation on the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses and on other institutions that employed accused abusers.

There has been speculation by lawyers that some dioceses could opt to file bankruptcy to help manage the abuse claims lodged against them. Others have speculated that the Boy Scouts could file Chapter 11 as well.

Among first suits filed

Among the first 10 lawsuits that firm Weitz & Luxenberg plans to file Wednesday in New York state will be one from Gregory Wilson. The 56-year-old Rochester man was a child of 8 or 9 years when he arrived at the Convalescent Hospital for Children. It was a place for troubled kids, and that was him - something he attributes to the alcoholic and abusive man his mother married.

The first beating came from other kids, some weeks after he arrived as counselors watched, he said in an interview. He retreated to his room, the one connected to an employee bathroom. It was a few nights later that he heard water running in the bathroom and woke to being pinned down. This time it was a hospital staffer.

That is how the beatings and rapes began, he said; more at first, less as he got older.

"This wasn't just happening to one kid. It was happening to many kids," Wilson said in an interview. "What are you going to do? What are you going to say? Who are you going to tell?"

When telling his family didn't get him out, he ran. He and a friend ran away more than three times. Those who ran, he said, were stripped to their underwear and bare feet at night. They ran anyway, even in the winter. His lips were blue and his feet wouldn't bend when the cops caught up with them near Campi's sandwich shop one night, nearly 5 miles away, and took them back, he said. His friend had told him if he made it home, his mother would see his sorry state and have to believe him.

Wilson tells his story with a matter-of-factness, his demeanor only cracking when he described the day he left; when he came back from school and saw his mother's blue Nova, and at the thought of facing his abusers.

"Hell," he repeats, over and over, searching for how to describe the idea of finally getting his day in court. "It's kind of messed my life up. (There are periods) I don't sleep. I don't eat. I keep to myself a lot. … Every time I sleep, I dream."

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The hospital became Crestwood, which became Hillside Children's Center. He will have to prove Hillside or its predecessor knew or should have known that the counselors and others were committing the abuse.

Hillside released a statement that read: "Hillside supports the Child Victims Act and its intention of giving a voice to those who have lived for years with the effects of trauma, neglect and abuse. In compliance with federal and state privacy laws, we cannot provide personal information on current or former clients, including whether a person or family has received our services. Additionally, it is our policy not to comment on pending litigation. Our Family of Agencies is committed to the safety and well-being of every child, and any suspected or actual offense against a youth is not tolerated."

The lawsuit will name Hillside and individual staffers. A lot of firms aren't taking cases against individuals, Wilson's attorney Samantha Breakstone said, given the likelihood of recovering little in damages. But Breakstone, who previously worked in the Kings County District Attorney's Office in Brooklyn as a trial assistant in the human trafficking unit of the Special Victims Bureau, said she thinks lawsuits like this also can bring closure.

Wilson is blunt in saying he has wanted payback, but in a productive way, so no other children are hurt.

"For years, many years, I've had problems," he said, both personally and in relationships. "It ain't like I have a lot of people to talk to."

Courts clogged?

The state's civil courts have been preparing for the potential onslaught for months.

Each judicial district, as well as each of the the five counties that comprise New York City, have named judges who will do nothing but handle lawsuits filed under the act.

Each judicial district, as well as each of the the five counties that comprise New York City, have named judges who will do nothing but handle lawsuits filed under the act.

In the judicial district that includes Monroe and seven other nearby counties that are within the Rochester diocese, child sexual abuse cases will be routed to a special part, or section, of state Supreme Court.

Two judges plus dedicated staff are assigned to the part for now.

A spokesman for the state court system, Lucian Chalfen, said similar steps are being taken around the state.

"Other counties have more or less depending on the anticipated volume," he said. "In New York City there will be 12 judges in the five counties."

Similar steps have been taken before when waves of related lawsuits were expected, including in 1986 when the state Legislature made a similar adjustment to the statute of limitations for bring suit over health impacts from exposure to certain harmful substances.

The so-called "Toxic Tort" law created a one-year window for people to file old cases alleging harmful exposure to asbestos and four other materials. Hundreds of suits were filed.

The idea of assigning specific judges to the CVA cases is to ensure consistent decisions and smooth case flow.

"The law will be developing rapidly. We need to make sure the justices in the part are properly trained," said state Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran, the administrative judge for the judicial district that comprises Monroe County and seven nearby counties. "Our goal is to assure the cases are handled efficiently and that we have appropriate infrastructure to handle what could be a significant volume of cases coming in our doors in a relatively short period of time."

Justice Charles Schiano Jr. is the primary judge assigned to that part. His backup is Justice Judith Sinclair.

Three more justices are on standby should the caseload prove too great, said Justice Matthew Rosenbaum, the supervising judge of civil courts in the district. Rosenbaum has experience with mass torts himself, having been the coordinating judge in hundreds of lead-poisoning laws filed in Rochester in the latter 2000's.

"We aren't sure if this is really going to be something that's going to show up," Rosenbaum said of the CVA cases. "I know there's a lot of cases being talked about. We'll know (Wednesday) if we're going to get a lot of them."

Contributing: Jon Campbell, USA TODAY Network-New York. Follow Steve Orr on Twitter: @SOrr1

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Child Victims Act: Hundreds of sex abuse claims filed in New York

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