More Child Victims Act lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo than against any other defendant in New York State, The Buffalo News has determined.
From Aug. 14 through Sept. 16, 138 lawsuits were filed against the Buffalo Diocese, alleging it negligently allowed priests or other employees to sexually abuse children.
The Archdiocese of New York City, which has four times more registered Catholics than the Buffalo diocese, is facing 124 Child Victims Act lawsuits, The News found.
As of Monday, 695 Child Victims Act lawsuits have been filed across the state since a law passed this year opened up a one-year window in which childhood sexual abuse victims could bring cases that were previously barred by the statute of limitations.
Catholic dioceses are named as defendants in about three-quarters of the cases, but none of the seven other Catholic dioceses in New York surpass the Buffalo Diocese's total.
"Part of it is the Catholic Church has been a bad actor when it comes to facilitating sexual abuse of children and moving abusers around," said Melanie Blow, chief operating officer of the national Stop Abuse Campaign. "And the Buffalo Diocese has not been behaving itself well."
The News determined the Buffalo Diocese had more cases filed against it than any other defendant by reviewing lawsuits electronically filed over 34 days in 47 counties, including the state's most populated counties. Only one Child Victims Act lawsuit was filed in the 15 mostly rural counties not included in the state's electronic filing system, according to the state Office of Court Administration.
The sheer volume of lawsuits against the Buffalo Diocese may influence whether it seeks bankruptcy protection in the courts, as Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone has said he is considering.
The Rochester Diocese, which is named in 45 Child Victims Act lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy protection Sept. 12.
One reason the Buffalo Diocese may have more lawsuits against it than the larger Archdiocese of New York is that the archdiocese settled more cases through a voluntary compensation program than Buffalo did.
Attorney J. Michael Reck of Jeff Anderson & Associates said the Buffalo Diocese rejected more applicants than it accepted in its compensation program.
The applicants who were denied "just said, 'OK, step one didn’t work, so let’s go to step 2' when the Child Victims Act happened," said Reck. "Frankly, a lot of them got alienated, and so I think survivors who may not have even gone so far as to file a lawsuit, had they not been turned away from the program, then did file a lawsuit."
Densely populated downstate dioceses and archdioceses, including New York, Rockville Centre and Brooklyn, all "kept their programs going and settled a lot more cases," said Reck, who has filed lawsuits against most of the Catholic dioceses in the state.
Before the Child Victims Act's one-year window opened Aug. 14, the Archdiocese had awarded $60 million in compensation to more than 350 individuals who filed claims accusing priests or other employees of molesting them as children. It allowed victims to file claims during two phases, in 2016 and 2018.
The Buffalo Diocese held only one phase of its compensation program, awarding $17.5 million to 106 claimants earlier this year. The Buffalo Diocese offered awards ranging from $2,000 to $650,000 to 127 applicants. It also rejected 135 applicants who were deemed ineligible for the program, mostly because they had not complained to the diocese prior to March 1, 2018.
The diocese declined to offer a second phase of the program to consider what officials called "an unexpectedly large number of new or previously unknown claims."
Reck also said intense media coverage in Western New York may have played a role in the large number of lawsuits filed so far against the Buffalo Diocese.
Based on the number of suits filed, Blow said the Child Victims Act is already a success.
"We were all guessing it would be a number in the hundreds, that it would not break 1,000," Blow said of how many lawsuits she had predicted would be filed during the one-year window.
She said she doesn't expect as many suits to be filed in the coming months as were filed in the first month.
Reck and other attorneys also said the numbers will change over time. The initial flurry of filings in the first few weeks of the one-year window will likely slow to a steady flow over the next several months, based on what has happened in other states, he said. Another flurry of lawsuits can be expected toward the end of the window in New York, according to several lawyers.
In Buffalo, some Catholic politicians, lay leaders and priests have called on Bishop Malone to step down because of his handling of the diocese's child sexual abuse crisis and more recent allegations of clergy sexual misconduct with adults. A poll by The Buffalo News published Tuesday said that 86 percent of Catholics or lapsed Catholics in Erie and Niagara counties think Malone should resign.