Flurry of suits emerge as New York opens door to old abuse claims
Albany, N.Y. – It was the early 1950s and Peter Vajda was a little boy attending a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx when he says a religious brother molested him.
The brother is likely long dead, but the church survives. Just after midnight Wednesday morning, Vajda, now 75, filed a civil lawsuit naming the Archdiocese of New York as a defendant. Justice, he says, may have been delayed but he won’t let it be denied.
“Now it’s their turn. Now it’s their time,” he told The Associated Press Monday. “And I want them to get everything they deserve in the way of punishment.”
Wednesday marked the start of a one-year litigation window in New York allowing people to file civil lawsuits that had previously been barred by the state’s statute of limitations, which was one of the nation’s most restrictive before lawmakers relaxed it this year.
Hundreds, likely thousands of lawsuits were expected to be filed on the first day. The Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, public school districts and possibly even deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein are among the likely targets.
“This is a momentous time for courageous survivors who have waited so long for justice in New York,” said Jeff Anderson, an attorney whose firm, New York-based Jeff Anderson & Associates, plans to file hundreds of civil molestation lawsuits Wednesday on behalf of clients.
Institutions that have long cared for children – such as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, as well as private and public schools and hospitals – are girding for what could be a devastating financial blow. A similar law passed in 2002 in California resulted in Catholic dioceses there paying $1.2 billion in legal settlements.
A compensation fund for sex abuse victims set up by the New York Archdiocese in 2016 has paid out $65 million 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 can’t predict what the numbers might be. We have been preparing,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, which is the nation’s second largest after Los Angeles.
The law creating the litigation window – the Child Victims Act – passed earlier this year following more than a decade of debate in Albany. The law also extends the statute of limitations for molestation going forward, giving new victims until age 55 to file lawsuits and until age 28 to seek criminal charges, compared to 23 under the old statute.
The one-year litigation window for past claims that was barred by the statute of limitations had been the sticking point to getting the legislation approved. Major institutions such as the Catholic Church argued against it, warning that it could cause catastrophic financial harm to any organization that cares for children.
The church dropped its opposition to the bill this year, after Democrats won control of the state Senate from Republican lawmakers who had been blocking the bill from receiving a vote. With Democrats in charge of the chamber, the bill passed unanimously.
Many of the lawsuits are likely to name individuals, or their estates. An attorney representing several women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein as young girls said they will file a lawsuit against Epstein’s estate. The well-connected financier was pronounced dead of apparent suicide Saturday while awaiting trial in New York.
Advocates, mental health experts and victims themselves say it often takes years for people who were molested as children to speak out about their trauma, even to a loved one. Sometimes victims say they didn’t think they’d be believed if they accused their priest, teacher, scoutmaster or another respected adult. Sometimes they say they felt some responsibility for the abuse, even though they were children at the time. Others say the shame, embarrassment and fear were simply too much to overcome.
“We only get one childhood, one adolescence,” said Jack Traub, a 55-year-old Staten Island attorney who says he was molested by a doctor at Rockefeller University 45 years ago. He said that as a result of the trauma, he’s had trouble forming and maintaining normal relationships all his life. “I can’t go back. It is what it is.”
Traub is one of 45 plaintiffs in the suit filed against Rockefeller University just minutes after the window opened by the Seattle-based firm of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, which also filed cases against the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church.
The doctor, Reginald Archibald, has been accused of molesting hundreds of child patients over a 30-year period. He died in 2007. Rockefeller contacted former patients, offered free counseling and conducted an internal investigation that found Archibald “engaged in acts of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse toward many of his patients.”
“Rockefeller University is committed to acting responsibly and working constructively with former patients of Dr. Archibald,” the hospital said in a statement. “We profoundly apologize to his patients who experienced pain and suffering as a result of his reprehensible conduct.”