One-year window to bring old claims begins in August
ALBANY — Beginning in August, people with decades-old claims of childhood sex abuse will have the rare chance to sue their alleged abusers and the institutions who they say ignored the crime.
The Child Victims Act, which passed the Legislature in January, lifts the statute of limitations for reporting childhood abuse and also creates a one-year “look back” window for past claims to be brought.
But hundreds who say they were abused by Catholic priests may be ineligible to pursue damages in court due to releases they signed as part of New York Archdiocese’ victims compensation program, relinquishing their rights to sue the church.
Several years ago, with Child Victims Act pending, the Catholic Church hired Kenneth Feinberg, an arbitration and mediation expert who has created programs to compensate victims of the 9/11 terror attacks and the Boston bombings, among other disasters.
Feinberg and his partner Camille Biros formed the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, mediating hundreds of clergy abuse claims and paying out more than $63 million on behalf of the Archdiocese of New York since 2016.
The church and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan aggressively marketed the program, seeking to settle with as many victims of abuse as possible before the Child Victims Act passed, according to New Jersey-based attorney Stephen Weiss, who said he represents about 100 victims of clergy abuse in New York and 300 nationwide.
“It was very purposeful,” Weiss said. “Once a victim has access to the courts, that claim will be much higher and the damages will be much higher in a court of law.”
With the look-back window soon approaching, some abuse victims are now seeking ways to undo those contracts.
In February, Florida-based attorney Jeff Herman filed a class action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of New York seeking to void such releases, charging that the victims were told they did not need a lawyer to participate in the Diocese’ IRCP program and were relayed inaccurate information about the pending legislation.
“It was an unfair process and many who participated did not have lawyers and were misled. Now they feel re-victimized, because they were tricked into settling for pennies on the dollar,” Herman said.
Weiss, who turns away abuse victims who have agreed to settlements with the church, disagrees.
“It may not be fair, it may not be equitable, it may not be moral, but it is legal,” he said. “If the person was represented by counsel, I see a very limited path for them to unwind that contract.”
State Sen. Louis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, hopes to pave a new path for victims of clergy abuse. He intends to introduce legislation that would void any settlement agreements between institutions and victims who say they were not adequately represented by counsel during these negotiations.
“It could be a Boy Scout leader, a rabbi, or any organization where they had this level of a child sexual abuse. If they entered into an agreement with a party, who at the bargaining table was improperly represented by counsel, the matter could be reopened,” Sepulveda said.
While the class-action suit continues to play out in court, Sepulveda, who met Herman at a conference, says he hopes the legislative process will be more efficient. The senator said he anticipates push back from religious institutions and potential legal challenges.
“You are first going to have the church and other organizations coming roaring back about how it will disrupt cases that were settled, and it will open up a Pandora’s Box,” he said.
There may be questions on how to determine if a victim was represented by effective counsel when signing the waver, Sepulveda said. In the case of the New York Archdiocese, he says any victims represented by counsel provided by the church or by an attorney with ties to the church should be able to reopen their claims.
Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the state Catholic Conference, said that all the victims who participated in the compensation program were represented by private counsel or pro bono lawyers.
“They had the opportunity to take or leave those settlements,” he said. “The vast majority of survivors are very happy with them.”