March 1, 2019

The cases, which will number in the many hundreds at least, will lay bare new details of past horrors and could push some of New York’s diocese to the brink of bankruptcy.

Unknown to many, the Catholic Church is a group of franchises, not unlike McDonald’s. The Vatican is financially immune from the debts of the parishes.

A new wave of allegations against Roman Catholic clergy will emerge in New York as a result of the new Child Victims Act. Matthew Leonard, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. After decades of anguish and argument over sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, a final reckoning may be coming for New York parishioners.

Over the last quarter century, sexual abuse allegations, some of them horrendous, have been lodged in fits and starts against more than 400 priests and others associated with the church in New York state. The church hierarchy has been accused of concealing the truth about sexual misconduct as well.

But the number of past accusations and admissions pale in comparison to what’s happening today, and what will happen in the months ahead. The Democrat and Chronicle has found this confluence of events:

  • More than 1,260 sexual abuse claims have been resolved and at least $228 million paid in compensation over the last two years under a systematic reconciliation program adopted by New York’s eight Catholic dioceses. Rochester is lagging, however, and has resolved about a half-dozen claims. By contrast, Ogdensburg, in less-populous St. Lawrence County, has already settled 39.
  • A wave of lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy will begin arriving soon in New York courtrooms and peak starting this summer. Big law firms are flocking to New York to take advantage of a new state law that eases stringent limits on who can file such suits.
  • The cases, which will number in the many hundreds at least, will lay bare new details of past horrors and could push some of New York’s diocese to the brink of bankruptcy. What may be the first suit brought under the new law, filed Friday in Buffalo, is seeking $300 million for a single victim. 
  • The state Attorney General’s investigation of church sexual abuse has given investigators access to private diocesan records that will document still more instances of sexual misconduct and could well reveal past efforts by church officials to shield abusive clergy from discovery.

Combined, the three initiatives will provide a painful yet welcome opportunity for victims of sexual abuse to grievances against priests that have festered for decades.

Colleen O’Hara Carney and her sister say they were abused more than 45 years ago by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Peter Conroy, a Rochester native who was a member of their extended family. His behavior including touching, grabbing and groping the girls when they were adolescents.

The family later reported the acts to the Jesuits and to the diocese of Buffalo, where Conroy was assigned in the early 2000s. At least one other complaint was made by a young woman who encountered Conroy on a college campus, Carney said.

Decades later, Carney is still troubled. “It keeps rearing its ugly head. He did this to me, and it’s been following me my whole life,” said Carney, who is 60 years old.

Earlier this week she signed the paperwork authorizing a lawsuit be filed against Conroy and the Jesuits.

“I just want acknowledgment,” said Carney, who added she hopes legal action will hold Conroy and his order to account, alleviate some of the anguish that she and her family feel and support the people who have worked to bring the church’s secrets to light.

The church’s reconciliation program is private, though victims are free to speak about their cases. Litigation can play out beyond public view as well, and the extent of the information that will be released by Attorney General Letitia James is unknown.

But advocates for sexual-abuse victims say they’re confident the flood of settled claims, lawsuits and the attorney general’s probe will reveal much.

“Because the doors of the courthouse have been locked, the information about what the dioceses knew and when they knew it, that remains under lock and key. The new law, frankly, is going to blow that door open. The survivors can share their stories,” said J. Michael Reck, a lawyer with a Minnesota firm that specializes in clergy abuse cases and has an office in New York City.

“We’re going to be able to crack open those secret archives,” Reck said. “I think what we know right now is a drop in the bucket. I think we’re going to find out a lot more.”

For decades, the rock on which child sexual abuse lawsuits foundered was New York’s statute of limitations.

These laws limit the amount of time that can elapse between an act of abuse and a lawsuit seeking damages for that act. There are statutes of limitations for crimes as well.

The underlying idea of a limitation is to ensure the best evidence and witnesses are available when the lawsuit is filed. But New York’s limitations for claims of child sexual abuse were among the most severe in the country.

Consider what happened with three high-profile civil actions filed against the Rochester diocese and its clergy:

  • A Rochester woman filed suit in 1993 accusing Brother John Laurence Heathwood, a popular teacher and theater director at Bishop Kearney High School, of sexually assaulting her beginning in the late 1960s, when she was a student at the Irondequoit school. She said the attacks continued for years and included threats and coercion and left her unable to conceive children. 
  • At least six former altar boys sued the Rev. Albert Cason in 2002, claiming he sexually abused them in the 1960s while he served at St. John the Evangelist Church in Spencerport and at St. Patrick’s Church in Owego, Tioga County. He was accused of abusing boys on overnight camping trips and at a drive-in movie.
  • Ten men filed a joint lawsuit in 2002 against the Rev. Robert F. O’Neill, accusing the once-popular priest of “sexual exploitation.” He allegedly molested numerous young teens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, often on trips to his cottage in Jefferson County.

In each of those cases, lawyers had what they believed was credible evidence that the plaintiffs had been sexually abused and left deeply scarred.

But they never had the opportunity to present that evidence in court. Each of the cases was dismissed out of hand, at least in part because the plaintiffs had waited too long to bring suit.

State law then required that most civil actions for such abuse be filed before the victim reaches age 23, and in some cases earlier than that. In each of the three high-profile cases, the plaintiffs were in their 40’s.

Experts say that gap in time between violation and litigation is common among victims of child sexual abuse. Many of them don’t come to terms with their injury until middle age.

“Some say the usual age of revelation is about 50,” said Robert Hoatson, founder of Road to Recovery, a support group for survivors of sexual abuse. “A victim only comes forward when they have the ‘tools’ to reveal the abuse.”

For that reason, multimillion-dollar jury awards against abusive priests and their dioceses have been rare in New York compared to other states with more liberal statutes of limitations.

But now the law has changed.

The Child Victims Act, which went into effect earlier this month, sets new and more relaxed time limits on civil actions. Victims of child sexual abuse now will be able to bring suit at any time before they reach the age of 55.

In addition, the law created a one-year window of time during which anyone may file suit over childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred or the age of the accuser.