“I don’t think I’m unusual in saying it was a long time coming,” Jayne Conroy, a Manhattan-based litigator who has handled more than 100 child sexual abuse cases, said of the Child Victims Act. “…We’re going to hold people accountable for what happened.”
The state law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month, raises the age from 23 to 28 in the statute of limitations for people in New York to seek criminal charges against their abusers, allows victims of such crimes to initiate a civil lawsuit before they turn 55 and provides those whose claims have been time-barred with a one-year window to initiate lawsuits. The 12-month period to file suits begins on Aug. 14.
In 2013, Conroy helped achieve a $12 million settlement on behalf of 24 boys at an orphanage in Haiti, who said they were sexually abused by convicted pedophile Douglas Perlitz.
Since Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act, Conroy said, many victims have contacted her law firm. “It’s not ordinary that a victim comes to us and says I want to file a lawsuit,” she said. “What they want to do is talk through what happened, understand it a little bit better and understand what options are available to them.”
Before the legislation was passed, many victims seeking financial settlements and validation in the last few years did so through compensation programs set up by dioceses around the state. The Diocese of Rockville Centre launched its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, or IRCP, in October 2017, following the model of funds set up by the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn and others.
In the first two phases of the program, 297 claims were filed, according to Camille Biros, an administrator for the program. Of those, 250 settlements have been paid or are in the payment process, she said last week. According to two lawyers who represent dozens of victims in the program, settlement amounts have ranged from $25,000 to $500,000. To receive compensation, victims had to agree that they would not pursue legal action against the church in the future.
In total, 1,300 victims in the state have received compensation in the amount of more than $250 million through the diocese programs, according to Michael Barasch, a partner at a Manhattan-based personal injury law firm who represented 180 victims for free in the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s IRCP alone. He said he is hopeful that people will decide to receive a settlement that way instead of suing the church.
“If you don’t want to go through the messiness and humiliation of a cross-examination and having to tell your story to all these strangers, I think it’s a much better thing,” Barasch said of the programs. “On the other hand, if you’re so angry and you don’t care about it and you’re willing to tell your story, then go ahead and sue. But at least by the state legislature passing this law and the governor signing it into law, people have a choice now, and that’s why I applaud it.”
But the compensation programs allow for secrets to be kept, explained Tim Hale, an attorney in Santa Barbara, Calif. He noted that there are no files disclosed or depositions conducted to discover the conduct of church officials who may have covered up the crimes. “There are today’s children out there who are at risk to be abused by the men who have yet to be identified by these institutions,” Hale said. “That information is going to come out through this litigation. I think that’s just so important.”
In 2003, Hale was one of the attorneys who led civil litigation for a case filed during a one-year window in California that lifted the statute of limitations for abuse claims against private institutions. Hundreds of alleged victims came forward, Hale said, and a group of them forced, through a yearslong legal battle, the release of “secret files” documenting abuse by priests within a Roman Catholic religious order known as the Franciscan Friars.
Though compensation funds may be a good option for abuse survivors who do not want to go through litigation, he noted, for many victims, confronting their perpetrator is an important part of the healing process. “It’s an opportunity for them to take back the power that was ripped away from them at such a young age and stand up for themselves,” he said.
Hale added that though the one-year window is a good step, he hopes to see the statute of limitations eliminated. Sometimes the perpetrator threatens their victims into silence, but many times, he said, survivors don’t come out because of shame, guilt or self-blaming. It can take a lifetime of self-medication, failed jobs and failed relationships for survivors to fully understand the psychological “domino effect” the abuse had on them, he added. Though there’s time to file, he noted that he witnessed many victims come forward after the one-year window was up.
“It was devastating for the survivor who finally found that courage only to be told that because they were at day 366 instead of day 365, that it was too late,” Hale said.
Last month, two women, who were not identified, accused three clergy members, including longtime Bishop John McGann, and a groundskeeper at St. Agnes Cathedral of abusing them between 1961 and 1971.
“I think people will feel more confident coming forward knowing that others are doing the same,” Conroy said. “I think there will be more claims than people can imagine.”