Six Catholic dioceses in New York so far have identified 249 Catholic priests who have been credibly accused of molesting children.
But the names of potentially hundreds more priests could surface publicly now that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has signed the Child Victims Act.
Cuomo’s signature on the legislation Thursday means that childhood victims of sexual abuse who previously were time-barred from suing now will have an opportunity to file lawsuits.
Victims of childhood sex abuse had until age 23 to sue under New York’s statute of limitations. The age now changes to 55. In addition, the new law opens a one-year “look back” window for victims to file claims, even in sex abuse cases from decades ago. The look-back period starts in six months.
“We are anticipating a lot of people will come forward,” said attorney Jayne Conroy, who represents sex abuse victims across the country, including in the Buffalo Diocese. “I think in New York state it will be an onslaught.”
Any organization that works with children and had a child molester as an employee or volunteer could be subject to a lawsuit under the legislation. But recent advertising by trial lawyers suggests that Catholic dioceses will be a particular target.
The New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops on public policy issues, had lobbied for years against the look-back provision.
But conference spokesman Dennis Poust said Thursday that the Catholic Church pushed for the final version of the Child Victims Act to include all institutions, including public schools.
The legislation “will help bring some measure of healing to all survivors of child sex abuse by offering them a path to reconciliation, not just in the Church, but across our entire society as we confront this horrible evil,” said Poust.
The dioceses of Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester and Syracuse all have released lists of clergy that served in those dioceses and were credibly accused of abusing minors.
In addition, officials with the Archdiocese of New York revealed in 2004 that they were aware of 45 priests who had abused kids, and in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, officials said 66 priests were accused of abuse. But neither of those dioceses has identified abusers by name.
BishopAccountability.org, which since 2002 has chronicled the U.S. Catholic clergy abuse scandal, has a database of 480 accused priests who served in dioceses in New York state. But victims of clergy sex abuse and their advocates said they believe there are far more priests in New York that have molested children than have been revealed so far.
“I think it’s safe to say 480 is not the right number. It might very well be double, or more than double,” said Terry McKiernan, co-founder of BishopAccountability.org.
The Archdiocese of Boston determined after a scandal exploded there in 2002 that about 10 percent of clergy who served in the archdiocese since 1950 had been accused of child sexual abuse, said McKiernan.
The eight dioceses in New York state had at least 12,000 priests since 1950. Based on the findings in Boston, 1,200 would be a good estimate for how many New York priests were accused of abuse, McKiernan said.
The New York number could end up dwarfing the 300 priests who were accused of molesting children in a Pennsylvania grand jury report that shocked Catholics around the world and helped galvanize more support for the Child Victims Act in New York.
Most dioceses in New York created compensation programs that awarded cash to qualified victims, who in exchange gave up their rights to sue. So far, five dioceses have paid about $200 million to nearly 1,000 victims through those programs.
But Conroy said many other victims either did not qualify or didn’t apply.
“I just think we’ve scratched the surface with the compensation programs,” said Conroy, who represents about two dozen clients who filed claims to the Buffalo program.
McKiernan said he anticipated that New York would be similar to California, where hundreds of new allegations against priests surfaced after the statute of limitations was suspended in 2003 with a look-back window.
“I’m sure we’re going to see the same thing in New York,” said McKiernan. “Lawyers are going to be filing lots and lots of lawsuits and they’re going to be moving very quickly because they have only a year.”
Cuomo signed the legislation into law at a ceremony inside the Manhattan newsroom of the New York Daily News.
He said the bill “rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished” and gives victims an opportunity for justice.