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North America

Thousands to take court action over child abuse

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The landmark state law passed this year creates a one-year window allowing people to file civil lawsuits that had previously been barred by the state’s statute of limitations, one of the nation’s most restrictive, that had prevented many victims from seeking justice for decades-old abuse. (stock photo)
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Thousands of people who say they were molested as children in New York state are expected to go to court this week to sue their alleged abusers and the institutions they say failed them, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, public schools and hospitals.

It's all because of a landmark state law passed this year that creates a one-year window allowing people to file civil lawsuits that had previously been barred by the state's statute of limitations, one of the nation's most restrictive, that had prevented many victims from seeking justice for decades-old abuse.

Many won't even wait a day. Michael Schall (64), who says his scoutmaster in the Buffalo suburbs molested him for two years beginning in 1968, will be among those filing lawsuits early on Wednesday morning. It's not about money, Mr Schall said, it's about standing up for the "sweet, naive" kid he once was, who had nowhere to turn.

"This is my chance to say: this happened to me," said Mr Schall, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. "It's affected me in so many different ways in my life, in who I am. This seems freeing. It's like I'm bringing something to light that's been held in the darkness for so long."

Wednesday could begin a year of financial reckoning for many large institutions that care for children. A similar law passed in 2002 in California resulted in Catholic dioceses there paying $1.2bn (€1bn) in legal settlements.

A compensation fund for sex abuse victims set up by the New York Archdiocese in 2016 has paid out $65m to 323 victims, the archdiocese says. Those victims have waived their right to file lawsuits. The archdiocese is also suing more than two dozen insurance companies in an effort to compel them to cover abuse claims, anticipating that insurers won't pay the numerous claims filed during the litigation window.

"We don't know exactly what to expect when the window opens," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "We certainly anticipate that there will be lawsuits filed against the archdiocese, as there will be against many other institutions and public entities as well."

The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement that it supports allowing victims to sue individual abusers and organisations even if the statute of limitations had expired - but only if the organisation concealed or withheld evidence of the abuse.

The organisation has acknowledged that sex-abuse litigation poses a financial impact and said it's now "working with experts and exploring all options available so we can live up to our social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse".

"We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counselling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward," the organisation said.

The law creating the litigation window passed earlier this year following more than a decade of debate.

Irish Independent

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The landmark state law passed this year creates a one-year window allowing people to file civil lawsuits that had previously been barred by the state’s statute of limitations, one of the nation’s most restrictive, that had prevented many victims from seeking justice for decades-old abuse. (stock photo)