ALBANY – Hundreds, possibly thousands of people who say they were molested as children in New York state are expected to go to court this week to sue their alleged abusers and the institutions they say failed them, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, public schools and hospitals.
It’s all because of a landmark state law passed this year that creates a one-year window allowing people to file civil lawsuits that had previously been barred by the state’s statute of limitations, one of the nation’s most restrictive, that had prevented many victims from seeking justice for decades-old abuse.
Many won’t even wait a day. Michael Schall, 64, who says his scoutmaster in the Buffalo suburbs molested him for two years beginning in 1968, will be among those filing lawsuits early Wednesday morning. It’s not about money, Schall said, it’s about standing up for the “sweet, naive” kid he once was, who had nowhere to turn.
“This is my chance to say: this happened to me,” said Schall, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. “It’s affected me in so many different ways in my life, in who I am. This seems freeing. It’s like I’m bringing something to light that’s been held in the darkness for so long.”
Wednesday could begin a year of financial reckoning for many large institutions that care for children. A similar law passed in 2002 in California resulted in Catholic dioceses there paying $1.2 billion in legal settlements.
A compensation fund for sex abuse victims set up by the New York Archdiocese in 2016 has paid out $65 million to 323 victims, the archdiocese says. Those victims have waived their right to file lawsuits. The archdiocese is also suing more than two dozen insurance companies in an effort to compel them to cover abuse claims, anticipating that insurers won’t pay the numerous claims filed during the litigation window.
“We don’t know exactly what to expect when the window opens,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, which is the nation’s second largest after Los Angeles. “We certainly anticipate that there will be lawsuits filed against the archdiocese, as there will be against many other institutions and public entities as well.”
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement that it supports allowing victims to sue individual abusers and organizations even if the statute of limitations had expired — but only if the organization concealed or withheld evidence of the abuse.
The organization has acknowledged that sex-abuse litigation poses a financial impact and said it’s now “working with experts and exploring all options available so we can live up to our social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse.”
“We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward,” the organization said.
The law creating the litigation window — the Child Victims Act — passed earlier this year following more than a decade of debate in Albany. The law also extends the statute of limitations for molestation going forward, giving new victims until age 55 to file lawsuits and until age 28 to seek criminal charges, compared to 23 under the old statute.
The one-year litigation window for past claims that was barred by the statute of limitations had been the sticking point to getting the legislation approved. Major institutions such as the Catholic Church argued against it, warning that it could cause catastrophic financial harm to any organization that cares for children.
The church dropped its opposition to the bill this year, after Democrats won control of the state Senate from Republican lawmakers who had been blocking the bill from receiving a vote. With Democrats in charge of the chamber, the bill passed unanimously.
The new law can be confusing, since it treats recent abuse cases differently than ones that had been barred under the statute of limitations, according to Michael Polenberg, of Safe Horizon, a group that advocates for abuse victims and that pushed for the legislation. He said that essentially, abuse victims who were under 23 when the act became law in February now have until they turn 55 to sue or seek charges. Those who were already 23 may only file civil suits during the one-year window.
While the window was a huge priority, Polenberg cautioned that it’s not an automatic win for individual plaintiffs.
“Some will prevail (in court), others will not,” he said. “And it doesn’t change how difficult it can be to talk about child sexual abuse in public.”
Attorney Jason Amala’s firm, Seattle-based Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, is representing hundreds of clients in New York who plan to file lawsuits. He said the lawsuits will not only seek compensation for victims, but also reveal information to the public about how abuse cases were handled and in some cases, covered up.
“This is very unusual,” he said of the litigation window. He said New York’s large population and its significant number of Catholics “make it pretty close to unprecedented.”
Advocates, mental health experts and victims themselves say it often takes years for people who were molested as children to speak out about their trauma, even to a loved one. Sometimes victims say they didn’t think they’d be believed if they accused their priest, teacher, scoutmaster or another respected adult. Sometimes they say they felt some responsibility for the abuse, even though they were children at the time. Others say the shame, embarrassment and fear were simply too much to overcome.
“Every time a survivor comes forward, there’s another survivor who finds the strength,” said Brian Toale, 66, who says he was molested by an employee at a Catholic high school he attended on Long Island. Toale, who now lives in Manhattan, was one of the leaders in the fight to pass the Child Victims Act.
The man who Toale says abused him is now dead, while the former scoutmaster Schall has accused is retired and living in upstate New York. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. The Boy Scouts of America did not return a message seeking comment on Schall’s allegations.
Toale plans to file a lawsuit against the school Wednesday. He said he’s not motivated by the money, although he said he’s spent a small fortune on therapy to help him heal from the trauma of childhood abuse.
“I don’t know if ‘excited’ is the right word, but there’s a lot of anticipation,” he said of the litigation window. “There’s a feeling that our time has come.”
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