BUFFALO, N.Y. — In just one week, a long-awaited window will open for those who claim to be victims of child sex abuse, but who were previously denied the ability to seek legal retribution in New York State.
It’s all part of the Child Victims Act passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year.
It will, for one year, essentially repeal the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.
Members of the legal system, including attorneys and court personnel, conservatively predict that several thousand lawsuits will be filed statewide as a result of the Child Victims Act beginning August 14.
Courtroom Doors Once Closed Suddenly Open
The scenario had been all too familiar in New York State when adult survivors of sex abuse, victimized perhaps decades before as children, finally sought judicial relief only to find the court room doors closed to them.
They were in fact time-barred in bringing civil lawsuits against their abusers and the people, or public or private institutions who they were affiliated with, by New York’s statute of limitations in such cases.
The Child Victims Act (CVA) will now give those adult survivors a chance to bring their abusers to justice, by extending the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.
During the one-year window, plaintiffs can file a case against their abusers no matter how old they are or how long ago the abuse happened.
"There are a lot of survivors who have been denied their day in court for many many years so this is their first chance," said Mike Reck, an attorney with the law firm of Anderson and Associates, who is helping to prepare nearly 500 cases.
Reck told 2 On Your Side that approximately 100 of his clients are from Western New York, and most of them alleged to have been abused by members of the clergy.
Impact on the Court System
The Office of the Erie County Clerk expects hundreds of cases to be filed on behalf of alleged victims Western New York
However, a scenario which might have existed less than a decade ago, of long lines of attorneys filing mounds of paperwork with deluged civil servants at the intake desk, is unlikely according to County Clerk Michael Kearns due to the fact that almost all lawsuits are filed electronically.
Notwithstanding, with so many potential cases suddenly in the offing, there could be concerns over the impact on an already back logged court system.
According to an attorney well versed with bringing such cases in other states which have adopted a CVA, the impact will likely be negligible.
“If there is anyone out there who is worried this will create a backlog and derail the criminal or civil justice system that would not be accurate,” said Michael T. Pfau of the Pfau Chochran Vertetis Amala Lawfirm in Seattle, Washington.
Pfau’s firm has partnered with the Marsh Law Firm of White Plains to represent 550 clients in New York State, including many in the Buffalo-area.
“We’ve seen this with asbestos cases and cases against drug companies where the courts have been quite adept at organizing cases in a logical and reasonable way and I fully expect that to happen in New York,” said Pfau, who also noted the large majority of such cases are settled without a trial.
“When they don’t resolve (settle) it’s usually not a good thing for the defendants because juries tend not to treat them well in sexual abuse cases,” Pfau said.
According to sources the NY State Supreme Court has been developing guidelines to mitigate the impact of any potential onslaught of cases, which could include assigning a group of judges to handle them, or consolidating and organizing cases by region.
Justice Paula Feroleto, who serves as the Administrative Judge of the 8th Judicial District encompassing Western New York, confirmed for 2 On Your Side that seven jutices have been assigned to handle CVA cases, a number which she says can be adjusted depending on demand.
She also said the goal was to resolve any cases which do not go to trial within a year after they are filed.
"There will be influx of cases, (but) these are important cases and they are given priority under the new law," said Reck, who is also pushing for a statewide coordination of similar cases.
"What that means is that all cases involving catholic diocese, because they involve similar issues of fact and similar rulings, should be coordinated statewide under the Child Victims Act. We've asked the court to consider creating three epicenters, if you will, of where these cases can and should be handled," Reck said.
Reck revealed the desire would be to have cases involving the catholic dioceses in particular heard Buffalo, Albany, and New York, where the largest flocks of Catholics have historically been located, and from where the largest number of cases involving abuse at the hands of clergy are expected to stem.
Damage Awards Could Astound
California was the first state to pass a Child Victims law in 2002, and during the one-year window for older victims to file a lawsuit which followed, churches and insurers reportedly paid nearly $1 billion in settlements.
The numbers in New York are expected to dwarf that.
“Because New York’s Statutes have been so restrictive for so long, you’re going to see an outpouring of people come forward,” predicted Pfau.
New York is now one of 17 states which have either adopted a CVA or is considering one, with the latest being Wisconsin where a proposal was put before lawmakers earlier this week.
California meanwhile, is now considering passing another CVA to let more abuse victims seek compensation.