Four of New York’s eight Catholic dioceses have file bankruptcy in part because of a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits authorized by the state’s Child Victims Act.
The law has allowed victims of childhood sexual abuse to come forward over the past two years to bring legal action against those they hold responsible for the abuse. According to court data, thousands of cases filed in New York City involve religious institutions.
The Diocese of Rochester declared bankruptcy in 2019, becoming the first Catholic diocese in New York to do so. Last October, the Diocese of Rockville Center on Long Island became the largest diocese in the United States to declare bankruptcy, citing the âsevereâ financial burden of the lawsuits.
âWhatever financial pain the Church has suffered as a result of this crisis, it is nothing compared to the suffering that turns the lives of survivors,â said Dennis Poust, executive director of the Catholic Conference of the New York State, in an email.
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For two years, New York temporarily set aside its usual civil lawsuit deadline to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue churches, hospitals, schools, camps, Boy Scout groups and other institutions and people they deem responsible for authorizing pedophiles or for turning a blind eye to wrongdoing.
That window closes on Saturday, after more than 9,000 lawsuits were filed, a deluge whose impact can be felt for many years to come.
Thousands of new allegations against priests, teachers, Scout leaders and other authorities have intensified the already harsh light on institutions responsible for caring for children.
And survivors of abuse have been offered an outlet for their trauma and a chance to be held to account, which was believed to be long lost.
âIronically, this has been a very healing experience for me on a personal level,â said Carol DuPre, 74, who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, claiming she was assaulted by a priest while she was a teenager in the early 1960s as she counted offerings and typed ballots after church services.
She put the events “in a warehouse in her mind,” but it still haunted her for decades. When the opportunity arose to file a complaint, the decision was easy.
“The idea of ââfacing it, talking about it and facing it frees me inside.”
new York is part of a number of states who in recent years have established windows for people to sue for child abuse, no matter how long ago. Similar windows have been opened in New Jersey and California.
Usually, courts set time limits for prosecution because of the difficulty in holding a fair trial for incidents that occurred many years ago. Witnesses die or move away. The records are lost. Memories fade. But lawmakers believed that despite these obstacles, victims deserved an opportunity for justice and might now feel emboldened to talk about things they have kept to themselves for many years.
New York’s one-year window was originally scheduled to end on August 14, 2020, but it has been extended twice over fears that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting legal disruptions will prevent survivors from coming forward.
Unless another extension is extended, e-filings will be accepted until midnight Saturday, according to a state court spokesperson.
The litigation tsunami even surprised some of the lawyers who regularly work with alleged victims of abuse.
“We thought we would get maybe a hundred or a few hundred cases and here we are,” said attorney James Marsh, whose firm has filed about 800 cases. “We have terribly miscalculated the interest there.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said potential clients always show up as the deadline approaches, with some gaining strength after seeing stories of others filing complaints. Lawyer Jeff Anderson said some survivors were waiting until the last minute due to the difficulty in coming forward.
And some will not have had the strength to come forward until the window closes, lawyer Mitchell Garabedian said.
“A court delay that has been announced encourages many victims and survivors to come forward,” Garabedian said. “But to the other victims and survivors, it doesn’t make sense.”
Some struggled with whether to publicly expose old wounds.
“It was not an easy decision,” said Donna Ashton, a 56-year-old from the Rochester area who filed a complaint in June claiming she was abused as a teenager by the music director. of a Baptist church. “You have to unearth and relive the trauma you suffered when you were young.”
She married the man at the age of 19 after what the trial characterized as manipulation, grooming and abuse. The church disputed the allegations.
âI had kids with him and I had to make sure that everything was going well for them and that they were okay with me presenting this,â she said.
Experts warn that it is too early to estimate the responsibility of church-related entities in the state. Although Anderson, who calls New York the “main battleground,” expects it to be in the billions of dollars.
Poust said bishops are now focused on resolving civil claims in a way that satisfies those who have been wronged while preserving the church’s charitable, educational and sacramental ministries.
Bankruptcies allow dioceses to consolidate victim claims and negotiate with claimants as one class.
For example, the Boy Scouts of America have filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2020 and last month, reached an $ 850 million deal with lawyers representing tens of thousands of victims of child sexual abuse.
Lawyers see the closing window as the start of another intense phase as individual cases are reviewed and bankruptcies continue. The deadline for new Child Victims Act filings could lead to resolutions, as defendants will now know how many claims they are processing.
âIt’s still early in the process because the window hasn’t closed yet,â Anderson said. “And once we do, we’ll see more progress.”