Epstein, Catholic church among targets as door opens to old sex abuse claims

(Court sketches by Christine Cornell)

The Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, schools and hospitals, and the late financier Jeffrey Epstein are some of the targets named in a flurry of sex abuse lawsuits filed Wednesday in New York as the state began accepting cases that had been blocked by an old statute of limitations.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits are expected as plaintiffs rush to take advantage of the one-year litigation window, created by state lawmakers this year to give alleged abuse victims a second chance to sue over abuse that, in many cases, happened decades ago.

Those suing Wednesday include a woman who says she was raped by Epstein as a teenager in 2002. She is suing Epstein’s estate and three of his associates.

Other high-profile lawsuits filed Wednesday include one from 45 former Rockefeller University Hospital patients who say a renowned endocrinologist molested hundreds of boys over more than three decades.

Hundreds of other people sued the church or one of its several New York dioceses. Among them is Peter Vajda, who said a religious brother molested him when he attended a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx in the early 1950s.

The brother is likely long dead, but the church survives. Early Wednesday, Vajda, now 75, filed a lawsuit naming the Archdiocese of New York as a defendant. Justice, he said, may have been delayed, but he won’t let it be denied.

“Now it’s their turn. Now it’s their time,” he said Monday. “And I want them to get everything they deserve in the way of punishment.”

The state’s statute of limitations had been among the nation’s most restrictive before state lawmakers extended it earlier this year for new cases.

“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, filed molestation lawsuits Wednesday on behalf of hundreds of clients.


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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.

Brian Toale, one of those who pushed lawmakers to approve the litigation window, said the lawsuits are as much about empowering victims as financial compensation. Toale, 66, said he was molested by an employee at a Catholic high school he attended on Long Island.

Toale’s suit against the Catholic Church was filed early Wednesday.

“Every time a survivor comes forward, there’s another survivor who finds the strength,” Toale said.

The law creating the litigation window, the Child Victims Act, passed this year following more than a decade of debate in Albany. The new statute of limitations for molestation gives new victims until age 55 to file lawsuits and until age 28 to seek criminal charges, compared with 23 under the old statute.

The litigation window 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 were likely to name individuals, or their estates. In a second case involving Epstein, an attorney for several other women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein as girls said they would sue Epstein’s estate. The well-connected financier was pronounced dead of apparent suicide Saturday while awaiting trial in New York.


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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 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.”