A Niagara County woman who said she was sexually abused by a priest when she was a student at Cardinal O’Hara High School has sued the school, the Franciscan order that once staffed the school and the Diocese of Buffalo for $300 million.
Gail Holler-Kennedy, 55, said she was abused between 1978 and 1981 by the Rev. Mark S. Andrzejczuk, a Franciscan friar who taught at the high school, according to court papers filed Friday in State Supreme Court.
The case is the first in Western New York to be filed following Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signing into law of the Child Victims Act, which extended to age 55 the time frame for victims of sexual abuse to bring a lawsuit.
Up until two weeks ago, Holler-Kennedy’s lawsuit would have been thrown out of court because the allegations were decades old and well beyond the statute of limitations for sex abuse claims to be brought in civil cases.
But the Child Victims Act, signed by Cuomo on Feb. 14, extended the age for filing lawsuits from a plaintiff’s 23rd birthday to the 55th birthday. Holler-Kennedy was still 54 when her lawsuit was filed.
She is being represented by the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC in New York City and by Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney known for his work in representing abuse victims in cases against the Archdiocese of Boston.
Holler-Kennedy was 14 when the abuse began, court papers allege. Andrzejczuk wrote passes excusing her from another teacher’s class and then sexually assaulted her in an empty classroom twice a week, according to the lawsuit.
“She was abused on numerous occasions from 1978 to 1981 while Father Andrzejczuk was her science teacher,” said Garabedian. “Given that my client was sexually abused on so many occasions over the course of three years, supervisors knew or should have known that there was an odd relationship between the teacher and my client.”
Holler-Kennedy said in court papers that she struggled with alcohol problems, battled anorexia and suffered panic attacks as a result of the abuse.
Andrzejczuk, who was from Maryland, died in 2011.
A spokeswoman for the Buffalo Diocese declined to comment on the lawsuit. The News left two voicemails at the offices of the Conventual Franciscans Minor, but did not receive a return phone call.
Cardinal O’Hara opened as a co-educational diocesan high school in the Town of Tonawanda in 1961 and was staffed for many years by friars from the St. Anthony of Padua Province of the Conventual Franciscans Minor, as well as by nuns from a variety of orders.
The friars pulled out of the school in 1989. They still provide priests at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs and a few other area ministries. The province, based in Ellicott City, Md., is now known as Our Lady of the Angels. More than 175 friars from the province serve in the United States, Canada, Italy, Japan, Ireland and England, according to the province website.
The lawsuit claims that the high school, the Franciscans and the diocese were negligent in hiring and supervising Andrzejczuk and were reckless in their disregard for the safety of Holler-Kennedy.
It seeks compensatory damages of at least $50 million and $250 million in punitive damages.
The Child Victims Act also allows for a one-year “look back” window to file lawsuits for victims of abuse of any age. That window will open six months from now.
Garabedian said he has “at least 30” clients in the Buffalo area and numerous other clients across the state planning to file lawsuits once that window opens.
Advocates for lengthening the statute argued that childhood victims of sex abuse were effectively cut off from seeking any civil redress through the state court system because they struggle to come to grips with the abuse and typically don’t report what happened until decades later.