“Every story is a heartbreak”: Flood of child sex abuse cases expected to be filed in Erie County
More than 230 cases are already expected to be filed in Erie County during the statewide one-year window that starts Wednesday and allows survivors of child sex abuse to file charges against their abuser—regardless of when the abuse took place.
The window is part of the Child Victims Act Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law six months ago.
“These cases go back further in time than they do in other states, where there are limitations on the age of the person bringing a case,” local attorney Steve Boyd told WBFO. “So, while New York was not the first to bring a child victims act, I think they brought maybe the strongest child victims act in the country.”
The new legislation raised the age to 55 that any children who experience sexual abuse today will have until to file a complaint. The current one-year window is a period in which adults of any age who experienced abuse as a child, and for whom the regular statute of limitations has passed, can bring charges against their abuser.
Boyd and his partner law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates announced that they will file 83 lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo as soon as the legal window opens at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. They expect to file around 130 or 140 lawsuits in total against the Diocese before the one-year period closes.
Eleven of the alleged perpetrators announced by Boyd and Anderson Tuesday were named publicly for the first time.
“We have clients who were abused beginning in First Grade and we have clients who were abused beginning in their teenage years,” said Boyd. “The clients that we have who were abused really as little kids are particularly heartbreaking stories, but every story is a heartbreak.”
Boyd added that the age of his clients ranges from the late 30s to 80s.
Samantha Breakstone, an associate attorney for the national law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, said the oldest client she will be filing a case for is 93.
Breakstone spoke to reporters Tuesday outside the Diocese of Buffalo on Main Street. The location was chosen because the first two cases Weitz & Luxenberg will file when the window opens on Wednesday are Diocese-related, but Breakstone said the 1,300 child sex abuse cases her firm is currently handling implicate many more institutions than just the Catholic Church.
“The abuse is so far beyond the Diocese,” she said. “We have a lot of school district cases. We have a lot of foster care cases. We have a lot of Boy Scout cases. We have a lot of family member and individual cases, where it’s something like a doctor or a neighbor. So, I think that really the important thing that everyone should keep in mind moving forward is that this is not just a church issue.”
Breakstone said she was particularly surprised by the number of school-related cases her firm has encountered so far across the state—about 400. She confirmed the firm will be filing cases against school districts in Erie County during the legal window, but she did not name specific districts.
As of now, Weitz & Luxenberg plans to file 129 cases in the Western New York region it defines as Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. Of those, 92 target individuals or institutions in Erie County. The firm will also file 67 cases in the Finger Lakes region, which includes Rochester, and 29 in the Southern Tier.
The first two cases Weitz & Luxenberg will file Wednesday involve the former principal of St. Francis High School, a private, all-boys Catholic school in Hamburg, and a male student in the 1970s, and a former priest at All Saints Catholic church in Buffalo and a female rectory student in the 1960s.
The law firms of Steve Boyd and Jeff Anderson and Weitz & Luxenberg are all encouraging more survivors of childhood sex abuse to come forward during this brief opportunity to file charges.
“It is an important resource that I think people are anxious and nervous to utilize,” Breakstone said of the Child Victims Act. “It was passed by victims for victims, and it really needs to be utilized otherwise all of it’s for naught. And raising the conversation, coming forward, talking about what happened to you: I’ve seen it more times than once, it inspires other people who have gone through something similar to then start talking about what happened to them.”
Boyd said he wants survivors to know they have the option of coming forward anonymously.
“I think sometimes when this is reported we see the survivors who are able to stand at press conferences, and maybe that gives people the impression that they have to stand at a press conference, but they don’t,” he said. “They can bring these cases privately, confidentially, and their identity will be protected.”
WBFO reached out to the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo for comment, but they have not yet responded.
The Movement to Restore Trust, an independent organization of Catholic laity formed in April 2019 at the suggestion of Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone, expressed solidarity for victims of child sex abuse in a statement released Tuesday.
“While claims are being resolved in the courts or through other avenues, the Movement to Restore Trust will continue to work on bringing organizational and cultural change within the Diocese of Buffalo that will result in a great role for the laity in the Church, increased accountability for bishops, and more transparency,” the statement read. “Our work has begun, but much remains to be done.”