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Across NYS, hundreds of sexual abuse survivors file lawsuits

Karen DeWitt
WBFO Albany Correspondent

It was an emotional day Wednesday, as hundreds of childhood sexual abuse survivors filed lawsuits in New York courts on the first day of a one-year window of opportunity for victims to seek civil action against their abusers.

Susanne Robertson and her two sisters were orphans at St. Colman's Home in Watervliet, near Albany, where she said they were routinely abused by the nuns and other staff there. When one of the girls reported the sexual abuse to a nun at the home, she was transferred to an orphanage for mentally disabled children. 

"The nuns were selective in who they targeted," Robertson said. "They kept trying to break my spirit. It didn't work then and it won't work now."

Jack Cesare said he was abused by the janitor, Eugene Hubert, at the St. Teresa of Avila school in Albany.  

"What happened to me changed my life and put me on a path of sexual destruction," said Cesare, his voice breaking. "An internal hell, but the end of the cover-up stops here."

Cesare, Robertson and her siblings, and others who say they are victims of childhood sexual abuse filed suits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, claiming that the diocese knew of the abuse and did nothing to stop it. 

The legislation that is spurring the lawsuits, the Child Victims Act, was approved earlier this year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature. It allows victims to bring criminal charges against an alleged abuser up until they reach the age of 28. They can also initiate civil action until they are 55 years old.

The one-year window allows thousands of survivors who are not covered by the new rules and who were barred from court action in the past to bring civil lawsuits from Aug. 14, 2019 until Aug. 13, 2020.

The survivors' attorney, Dan Ellis of the Herman Law firm, said his firm has compiled a list of 500 priests across New York who have been accused of sexual abuse. 

"We're hearing from hundreds of victims across the state," Ellis said, "who no longer have to suffer in silence."

Ellis's firm is one of several filing cases Wednesday.

Jeff Anderson of the Anderson Law firm filed 262 cases in nearly every Roman Catholic diocese in New York. Anderson, who said he has litigated sexual abuse victims' cases for 37 years, called Wednesday "one of the brightest and most hopeful days" he has had in representing survivors. 

The Marsh Law firm has over 500 clients that are also filing claims against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and several Boy Scout Councils in New York, and 200 claims against Rockefeller University Hospital over alleged abuse by Dr. Reginald Archibald, who ran a clinic for children with growth problems. 

Ellis said the next step is to help his clients prove their case in court. He said that will involve the victims telling their stories to a judge, and in some cases a jury, and will also include depositions from officials in the diocese. He said they hope to uncover more evidence of sexual abuse that he believes has been covered up. 

"We still think that the dioceses across the county are withholding files and complaints based on known perpetrators," Ellis said. "We don't think all the records are out there."

The New York State Attorney General's office announced over a year ago that they had begun an investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but so far has not made any information public.

The Catholic Church lobbied against the Child Victims Act for several years, but earlier in 2019 dropped its opposition. Many dioceses now say they support the victims and will not stand in the way of their lawsuits. Albany's bishop, Edward Scharfenberger, released a video message. 

"We support all survivors in the justice and healing that they seek," Scharfenberger said in the video.  

Scharfenberger said victims should not be afraid to "speak truth to power."

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.