ALBANY — By New Year’s Day, more than 1,300 lawsuits had been filed during a special “look back” period during which New York is allowing molestation lawsuits previously blocked by time limits, according to court records.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and even the late Jeffrey Epstein have been sued under the “Child Victims Act,” enacted by state lawmakers in 2019. An even greater number of lawsuits is expected this year.
One Catholic diocese has filed for bankruptcy and another has asked the courts to declare the law unconstitutional.
And, according to one attorney, the community of survivors of childhood sexual assaults has been “transformed.”
“There has been striking impact every single day,” said lawyer Jeff Anderson, whose firm already has filed 300 claims.
The new law, enacted last year after being stalled in Albany for more than a decade, allows a one-year period for molestation claims to be filed, regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. That period began on Aug. 14, with hundreds of lawsuits filed in every corner of the state that first day.
By New Year’s Day, 1,333 claims had been filed statewide. Those include 68 in Nassau County and 33 in Suffolk County.
Previously, New York’s statute of limitations required that civil or criminal charges be filed by the victim’s 23rd birthday. It had been considered one of the strictest in the nation.
Beyond the one-year period, the new law also extends the deadline for filing a civil claim to a person’s 55th birthday.
The one-year litigation window was perhaps the single biggest reason the Child Victims Act had been stalled in Albany for more than a decade. The Catholic Church and other entities argued against it and a Republican-led State Senate had kept the bill bottled up. But Democrats took power last year after sweeping electoral wins in November 2018 and made passing the measure a top priority.
“This has been a historic and wonderful year for survivors in New York State,” said Michael Pfau, an attorney. “In general, most abuse survivors feel good about the Child Victims Act and moving forward, taking the step of coming forward, talking to a lawyer, talking to a therapist … Win, lose or draw [in court], taking the step forward, taking the power back is a positive thing.”
He added: “On a more granular level, 1,300 is only a fraction of the lawsuits and claims that eventually will be filed.”
For instance, he said his firm has filed claims under the Child Victims Act for about 150 of the 700 clients it represents. He believes the state will see far more cases filed in 2020 than 2019.
Anderson’s firm filed 262 lawsuits on the first day of the look-back period, all against the Catholic Church. Since then, the firm has filed another 100 or more against the Boy Scouts and other institutions. And it is preparing at least another 220 claims.
With potential liabilities piling up, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy protection less than a month after the look-back period began.
According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the diocese said it has assets valued between $50 million and $100 million — and potential financial liabilities ranging from $100 million to $500 million.
Rochester became the 20th diocese nationwide to seek bankruptcy protection in the wake of the church’s sexual-abuse scandals.
Meanwhile, another diocese has chosen a different response.
The Rockville Centre diocese filed a motion in November challenging the legality of the Child Victims Act, saying the lifting of the statute of limitations was unconstitutional. It said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators overstepped their authority when they suspended normal time limitations on filing lawsuits.
The diocese seeks the dismissal of 44 lawsuits filed against it. If it succeeds, similar challenges undoubtedly will be filed by dozens of other entities.
“The New York State Constitution imposes a constraint, as a matter of due process, on any such legislative enactment,” the diocese said in its court filings. Referring to New York’s highest court, it added: “Specifically, the Court of Appeals has, for nearly 100 years, interpreted the Due Process Clause in our State Constitution to allow for revival of time-barred claims only in exceptional circumstances where claimants were previously prevented in some specific manner from asserting timely claims.”
The diocese’s motion was filed at State Supreme Court in Nassau County, which hasn’t acted on it yet.