Photo: John Carl D’Annibale
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ALBANY — The state’s court system is bracing for potentially thousands of lawsuits to be filed starting Wednesday, when a one-year period begins that will enable victims of childhood sexual abuse to file previously time-barred claims against their alleged abusers and the institutions that may have harbored them.
The state Office of Court Administration has assigned 45 judges, including five in the Capital Region, to handle the lawsuits that are expected to target individuals accused of abuse as well as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, private and public schools, daycare centers and foster-parent organizations.
“I’ve got hundreds of cases scattered across New York,” said Jeff Herman, a south Florida attorney who is pursuing claims against the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese and other groups.
Herman said he and other lawyers, who in some instances have coordinated their litigation, expect a flurry of lawsuits to be filed as the one-year window opens, but said many other cases will be filed in the coming months.
There may also be many more victims who come forward as they learn their abusers have been publicly identified in lawsuits and that disclosure gives them the courage to step forward, Herman said.
The impending wave of litigation was enabled by the Legislature’s passage this year of the Child Victims Act, which ended a more than decade-long political battle between survivors of childhood sexual abuse and some of the institutions accused of trying to cover it up. The legislation passed, in part, as a result of Democrats gaining control of the state Senate last fall.
“I’d say by far the Catholic Church has the most cases, which is why I think they fought it so hard,” Herman said. “That’s where we see most of the victims coming from … but not all.”
Robert J. Levine was 13 years old and living in Guilderland in 1977 when, he claims, a Boy Scout leader from his family’s church began grooming and sexually abusing him. Now 55, Levine said his parents didn’t believe him when he later told them what was happening, and that employees he called at Boy Scout regional offices brushed off his pleas for help.
“I called the Boy Scouts on Washington Avenue Extension (in Albany),” he said. “I was able to speak for about 20 seconds or so, trying to explain the situation — and they hung up on me.”
“It continued on for several months, and then I more or less had to remove myself from the situation because I couldn’t get help from anybody,” Levine recalled. “He gave me alcohol and encouraged marijuana use. The rest of my teenage years was in a drug-induced haze.”
A couple years ago, Levine said, he contacted the Boy Scouts of America again to tell them what had happened 40 years ago and to inform them his alleged abuser was still involved with the organization — now holding a high-ranking position in the New York Boy Scouts.
“They let him go about a week to 10 days after I reported him,” Levine said.
Jason P. Amala, a Seattle attorney who represents Levine and specializes in child-abuse litigation, said the Boy Scouts, like the Catholic Church, have files on their known and suspected abusers dating back decades.
“Everyone focuses on the Catholic Church,” Amala said. “But there’s seven or eight dioceses in New York and each has its list of bad guys. If you add up all those numbers and compare to the number of files the Boy Scouts had in New York, the numbers are pretty close.”
The lawsuits are expected to be challenging for both sides. Many will involve cases in which there may be little or no physical evidence, and witnesses or accused abusers are dead or elderly and suffering from diseases such as dementia.
The organizations, in turn, will seek to defend their handling of any allegations that were made at the time of the abuse. In many instances, the groups will assert that they never knew about the abuse, or that they could not sustain it and therefore may have only transferred an accused abuser.
One common thread in many of the cases is that decades ago, many of the organizations — including the Catholic Church — would handle the allegations internally rather than calling police.
“We always have to show in all these cases … the organization knew or should have known the person posed a danger to kids,” Amala said. “We have a lot of clients who will say, ‘I had a single mom and she thought the Boy Scouts were the greatest thing ever. … I never thought this guy might be a pedophile.'”
Amala said his firm is working with the Marsh Law Firm, based in White Plains, and the two firms jointly represent about 530 survivors. Of those, about 170 are people with claims against the Catholic Church and roughly 50 have claims against the Boy Scouts.
In response to questions about the steps being taken to handle the onslaught of lawsuits, a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany issued a general statement describing Bishop Edward Scharfenberger’s devotion to the victims.
“Experts tell us that the publicity that will surround the opening of the window for the Child Victims Act could be triggering for those who have been sexually abused, and so our focus will be on accompanying survivors and supporting them as they journey toward healing, whether they choose the path of litigation or not,” Mary DeTurris Poust said in a statement. “Bishop Scharfenberger has often said that we are a wounded family, and we cannot heal unless and until we care for and walk with those among us who have suffered in silence for so long.”
Poust said the bishop appointed a task force in April to examine ways to improve their outreach to survivors and, if needed, update policies and protocols. She said that effort includes assisting priests and their support staff as they enter “what could prove to be a challenging time for local Catholics.”
The litigation also may reveal, for the first time, the inner details on how many schools and other organizations handled sexual abuse cases.
The Catholic Church has been much more secretive with its internal records, disclosing lists of priests accused of abuse but never releasing — without a court order, which has been rare because of New York’s statute of limitations — copies of personnel files, which would include documentation on the handling of the cases.
Decades of secrets
Herman, whose clients include many victims allegedly abused by priests or others in the Albany diocese, said some bishops have kept secret files documenting abuse and would decline to turn those over even under a court order.
“Only the bishop would have access to those files and would deny ever having those files to protect the church,” Herman said. “They interpret Canon Law differently. … There are people who say that means not only does the bishop keep a separate file, because it would incriminate the church, but he would do everything to maintain the secrecy regardless of who is asking.”
In September 2018, the New York attorney general’s office, following the lead of other states, issued civil subpoenas to the state’s eight Catholic dioceses to obtain their sexual abuse files. The attorney general’s office has declined to comment on the status of any investigation that may have resulted from the subpoenaed records.
Herman said the Albany diocese, and others, should simply make those files public immediately.
“They could have done this already,” he said.
Herman said that paralegals and investigators for his firm are using a special software program to upload “medical records and all the relevant evidence we believe will be necessary to produce to the other side.”
In 2017, the private Emma Willard School in Troy issued a 96-page report — prepared by an outside law firm — that detailed more than seven decades of pervasive sexual abuse and misconduct at the prestigious girls school.
The sweeping report detailed a multitude of cases dating to the 1950s in which male and female faculty members had cultivated sexual relationships with students. Many of those former faculty members, according to sources familiar with the matter, have retained attorneys and are bracing for potential lawsuits.
The enactment of the one-year period for filing claims had been a central talking point for the opposition to the Child Victims Act; many claimed it could bankrupt religious institutions or other entities.
The new law also imposed changes to the criminal statutes — not retroactive — that extend by 10 years the five-year statute of limitations for prosecution of felony sexual abuse crimes, a clock that had previously starting running when a victim turned 18. That clock now starts when a victim turns 23. Victims also now have until age 28 to press charges for felony abuse, and can file charges up to age 26 for misdemeanor sexual abuse crimes.
Gary A. Greenberg, 60, who was sexually abused as a 7-year-old, was a staunch advocate for the Child Victims Act at the Capitol and on the floor of both chambers of the Legislature when the measure finally passed in February.
“I, along with thousand of victims, will now begin the journey to make the predators and their enablers accountable for the heinous crimes committed on our souls,” said Greenberg, founder of the Fighting for Children political action committee.
“I will never forget the victims who are no longer with us. Their and their loved ones’ pain and grief will not be forgotten,” he said. “I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and many a year to see this day come.”