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New York braces for a flood of lawsuits, as one-year window opens for child sexual abuse victims to bring cases

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the Child Victims Act in New York on Feb. 14. The law created a one-year window for prior victims to sue, beginning Aug. 14. (Seth Wenig/AP)

New York state Rep. Linda Rosenthal was solemn on Tuesday afternoon when she thought about the wave of lawsuits that would be filed in courts across her state the next morning: “The day of reckoning has come,” she said.

Starting Wednesday, survivors of child sexual abuse have one year in New York state to file suit against their alleged abusers and against institutions such as churches and schools that protected those abusers. The one-year window will permit a flood of cases that were previously disallowed in the state because of a strict statute of limitations that prevented victims from suing after they turned 23.

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“This is the time when we can actually be heard and be believed,” said Brian Toale, 65. He was 62 when he finally came forward about the childhood abuse that had tormented him throughout his life. Now a leader of the Manhattan branch of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, Toale plans to file suit on the first day of this window.

The person who abused him when he was a 16-year-old student at Chaminade High School, a Catholic school on Long Island, has been dead for almost 30 years, Toale said. But he will sue the school and the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, seeking to recover some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he says he has spent on therapy.

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The state’s eight Catholic dioceses are the likely target of many of the suits that will be filed Wednesday and throughout the one-year window, but far from the only institution. The Boy Scouts expect a large number of lawsuits. Schools, Jewish groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other churches and youth organizations also are likely to face suits that couldn’t be brought before because the victims kept their abuse secret for too long to bring a case under state law.

The Child Victims Act, passed this year, changed that, giving victims up to age 55 to sue in future cases and opening the window for prior cases.

In the past year, New York was one of 20 states and the District of Columbia that changed their statutes of limitation in some way with regard to child sexual abuse cases, according to Marci Hamilton, who runs the research and advocacy organization Child USA. In many states, that meant extending the length of time that victims have to bring criminal or civil cases. Four places, along with New York, also opened windows for lawsuits: Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

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The Catholic Church fought the proposal in New York for years. On the eve of the window opening, spokesman Joseph Zwilling said the Archdiocese of New York expects to face numerous lawsuits but does not expect to need to file for bankruptcy.

In late June, the archdiocese sued 33 insurance providers that it has used, anticipating that they might deny coverage of clergy sexual abuse claims. Zwilling said the preemptive lawsuit is intended to compel the providers to honor the insurance coverage for which the archdiocese paid premiums.

The initial cases that were filed on Wednesday morning, in the first hours of the yearlong opening, gave some indication of what the state’s Catholic dioceses will face this year -- not just claims in old cases, but new allegations involving currently active priests.

In a conference call on Wednesday, several law firms said they were collectively filing cases which covered a variety of situations. One victim, now in his 70s, had never come forward before; the priest he says abused him in the Archdiocese of New York is now deceased, and was never accused of abuse in his lifetime. Another victim, a 36-year-old New York City resident, is alleging that a priest still serving in the Archdiocese raped her when she was a teenager.

Others have already made their stories public. Rafael Mendoza, one of five men who have claimed in the press that Monsignor John Paddock abused them when they were schoolboys, is a plaintiff in a case filed Wednesday, according to his attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel at Seeger Weiss LLP.

Tuegel, who has represented gymnasts allegedly abused by coach Larry Nasser, said her firm and two other law firms it is working with filed 15 cases on Wednesday, and are representing 170 New York victims who may file suit during this year.

Rosenthal, a Manhattan representative who was one of the lead sponsors of the Child Victims Act, said judges across the state have been specially trained to handle these cases and will be the only ones hearing them. The law required that the judges learn about how to address the vagaries of these suits, including instances in which the abuser is long deceased, evidence is outdated or victims stayed silent for decades. “It’s not like any other case,” she said.

The state court system said in a statement Tuesday that 45 judges have completed the training and committed to handling the cases expeditiously: a recommended timeline of 30 days from the filing of a lawsuit to the first hearing, discovery within a year and a trial soon after.

Rosenthal said she expected repercussions far beyond the Catholic Church. “This will no doubt reveal abuses that we’ve never heard of before. It’s not just the church. It’s not just some Jewish institutions. It’s not just the Boy Scouts. I’m sure there will be other cases filed that will surprise us,” she said. “Although nothing should surprise us because this kind of child sexual abuse has been so endemic to our society.”