Church abuse

Child Victims Act Allow Clergy Victims to File

Beginning on August 14, New Yorkers who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse will have a one-year window of opportunity to file civil suits against their abusers, under the terms of the Child Victims Act, passed by the New York State legislature earlier this year. Thousands of cases are expected to be filed, with payouts potentially in the millions.

Experts have said that for plaintiffs, the chances of winning a CVA settlement are good. “There’s not a lot of downside risk in these cases,” said Church Mutual’s Hancock. “Institutions usually settle.” In part, that’s because the absence of physical evidence is less important than a victim’s testimony.

Gordon Smith, was 14 years old when he says he was first abused by two priests at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and school in Albany in the early 1960s. He was filling in as a janitor for his father, who was sick. He says the abuse continued, on a weekly basis, for three years. “It was about as horrific as it could get,” said Smith, in an interview with public radio and TV. One of the priests that Smith is accusing, Father Donald Starks, appears on a list kept by the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese of priests with “credible” accusations against them. Starks died in 1989. He says the priests threatened him. “They told me if I ever said a word, first of all, no one would believe me,” Smith said. “Then they also said that they would make sure my father never worked again and would ruin my family.”  For decades he told no one. Smith drank for years until he says he got married and straightened out. He first sought help in 2005 and asked the church to pay for his therapy. They paid for one session, then called and said they did not believe him.

Smith is preparing to file his lawsuit against the church on August 14. Under the previous statute of limitation laws, he would have had to file charges when he was in his 20s. With the one-year window provided by the new law, anyone who was abused can initiate civil court action. Smith’s attorney, Jennifer Freeman, says The Marsh Law Firm, where she is a senior counsel, has 515 cases lined up and ready to be filed in civil courts in New York on August 14. “This is landmark legislation,” said Freeman. New York went from being one of the worst states in which to seek recourse for childhood sexual abuse, to being one of the best, according to Freeman. The Catholic Church in New York has for years lobbied against the Child Victims Act, however, they have dropped their opposition earlier this year. The Diocese is not disputing or fighting any of the accusations. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Albany Diocese, in a videotaped message about the upcoming civil cases, says he supports the victims in seeking “justice and healing.” “There’s no place in our family of faith for abusers to act out, regardless of their status, or to hide from their crimes,” said Scharfenberger. “Nor should anyone fear calling them out, past or present.”

If you or someone you know has experienced abuse at the hands of a member of the clergy, please reach out to the experienced attorneys at Forester Haynie.


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