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Yearlong window to file childhood sex abuse lawsuits begins Wednesday

Wednesday is the first day of a yearlong legal window to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their alleged abusers. Hundreds of cases are expected to be filed on the first day alone.

The survivors bringing suit Wednesday were previously shut out of the courts due to a strict statute of limitations. Under the Child Victims Act, approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature earlier this year, victims can bring criminal charges against an alleged abuser until they reach the age of 28, and can initiate a civil lawsuit until they are 55.

The one-year window allows all survivors, who aren’t covered by the new rules and who were barred from court action in the past, to bring civil lawsuits against their alleged abuser and any institution who may have enabled the abuse. 

Michael Pfau, a Seattle, Washington-based lawyer who handles child sexual abuse cases, said he is representing 550 survivors living in New York, and will bring 100 cases to court on Wednesday.  

“Those cases will be against the Roman Catholic church, we are filing cases in every diocese across the state,” said Pfau.

He said cases will also be filed against the Boy Scouts and on behalf of alleged victims of Dr. Reginald Archibald. Archibald ran a clinic at Rockefeller University Hospital for children who didn't grow properly, and the hospital has admitted he may have abused many of the children.  

The state of Washington has had laws for several years that make it easier for victims to sue. A survivor is permitted to go to court up to three years from the date that they realize they have been abused. Many times, someone is well into adulthood before clearly understanding that they may have been victims of abuse. 

Pfau said it won’t be easy for the survivors to face in court their abusers or the institutions that may have aided in the abuse. 

“It will involve some reliving of the events,” Pfau said.  

Pfau said the thousands of cases that are expected to be filed will likely lead some institutions to declare bankruptcy. Pfau, who has been involved in four bankruptcy cases with Catholic dioceses, said it’s often used as a “strategic” tactic. 

“They are not doing it because they don’t have assets enough to compensate abuse survivors,” he said.  

Pfau said bankruptcy can provide a “systematic” framework to help the victims win just compensation. But he said declaring bankruptcy helps the institutions avoid jury trials, and that limits the amount of additional information that might have been revealed through the discovery process. That includes any files Catholic dioceses might have on alleged abusers and information contained in what the Boy Scouts have labeled “perversion files.”

Pfau said he and other attorneys will have subpoena power, and will be able to fill in the missing pieces that he said will tell the full story of the abuse as the cases commence.  

“We will be able, through that process, to piece together the history of abuse in each Catholic diocese,” he said. “What the bishops knew and when.”

Officials from one Catholic diocese in Albany have said they are prepared for the lawsuits and support the survivors’ quest to seek legal recourse.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.