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Hundreds of New York child sex abuse victims sue accusers under new US law

Joanne Schoonmaker, right, is consoled by her attorney after filing a lawsuit alleging she was raped by a janitor at Wellsville Middle School at the age of 12. Source: AAP

A barrage of civil cases alleging child sex abuse have been filed in New York, on the first day of a new law that extends the statute of limitations for victims.

Hundreds of people who say they were victims of sexual assault have filed lawsuits against prominent institutions in the US state of New York - including the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America - as a new law that extends the statute of limitations on those cases went into effect.

The state's landmark Child Victims Act, which legislators passed earlier this year, lifts the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases for one year, giving alleged abuse victims in New York a second chance to sue, even if the crime happened decades ago.

Previously, most victims of childhood sexual abuse only had until the age of 23 to bring criminal charges or to seek damages in civil lawsuits in New York. 

Joanne Schoonmaker, left, and Auset Love both filed lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused as children in New York.
Joanne Schoonmaker, left, and Auset Love both filed lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused as children in New York.
AAP

Under the law, after the year-long window closes, accusers will have until the age of 55 to file lawsuits and until the age 28 to seek criminal charges. Advocates, mental health experts and victims say it often takes years for people who were molested as children to speak out about their trauma, even to a loved one.

Hundreds of lawsuits had been filed by early afternoon on Wednesday, the first day the law went into effect, according to local reports.

Many who said they had spent years of suffering following the alleged abuse said they now felt a renewed hope for justice.

Peter Vajda, now 75, filed a lawsuit naming the archdiocese of New York as a defendant on Wednesday. He accused a religious brother of molesting him when he attended a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx in the early 1950s.

"Now, it's their turn. Now it's their time," said Vajda, according to The Associated Press news agency. "And I want them to get everything they deserve in the way of punishment."

Prominent institutions named

The law was passed after a decade of debate among legislators, in which the year-long window to file suits became a major sticking point. Some major institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, argued that opening the floodgate of lawsuits could cause catastrophic financial harm to any organisation that cares for children.

The church dropped its opposition to the bill this year.

About 85 people had filed lawsuits against the church in New York by late morning, according to New York County Supreme Court records. Most of them accused priests of sexually abusing them as children and church leaders of covering up the alleged crimes.

Hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits were filed in New York- including against the Roman Catholic Church - after a new law changed the statute of limitations.
Hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits were filed in New York- including against the Roman Catholic Church - after a new law changed the statute of limitations.
Getty

James Grein, now in his 60s, said that he was sexually abused as a child for years in New York and elsewhere by the priest who had baptised him, Theodore McCarrick.
 
The priest went on to become one of the most powerful figures in the church, serving as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, before he was finally defrocked in February of this year when the Vatican found him guilty of sexually abusing children and adults.
 
During a news conference in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, Grein told reporters he was both joyful and "shaking like a leaf" after filing a lawsuit against the church for negligence, according to Reuters News Agency. 

"It's our historical gift from God that we can possibly go forward today and get this done," Grein said. "I've been waiting years. I've suffered many, many years."

James Grein, 61, shows postcards sent to him as a boy by now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
James Grein, 61, shows postcards sent to him as a boy by now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
AAP

The lawsuits also targeted specific individuals, schools, hospitals and the Boy Scouts of America, a youth organisation. 

Within minutes of the window opening, at least 45 former Rockefeller University Hospital patients had filed lawsuits against a prominent doctor. 

"We only get one childhood, one adolescence," said Jack Traub, a 55-year-old Staten Island lawyer who said he was molested by the doctor at the Manhattan hospital 45 years ago, according to AP.

The plaintiffs filing lawsuits also included a woman who said she was raped as a teenager in 2002 by financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in his prison cell on Saturday while facing sex trafficking and conspiracy charges. She is suing Epstein's estate and three of his associates.

The number of lawsuits is expected to rise into the thousands in the coming days. One law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, said it would sue on behalf of 400 people in New York City, with plaintiffs ranging from teenagers to people in their 90s. Statewide, the firm said it was representing more than 1,200 people who were victims of sexual abuse as children.

A separate group of law firms said it would be representing at least 170 plaintiffs across the state, many with complaints against the Roman Catholic Church.

Bracing for financial repercussions

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York said in a statement on Wednesday that it had anticipated facing new lawsuits with the change in the law.

A similar law passed in 2002 in the state of California resulted in the dioceses there paying $1.2bn in legal settlements.

The church said it would continue to "invite people to consider" a compensation program created in 2016 for people sexually abused by its clergy, including those previously excluded from suing by the statute of limitations.

So far, the archdiocese has paid more than $66m in compensation to 335 victims. In accepting the compensation, those victims have waived their right to sue in court, the archdiocese said.

"While we carefully review the claims made in these suits, we ask that people pray for peace and healing for all those who have suffered from the sin and crime of the sexual abuse of minors, wherever it occurred," the archdiocese's statement said.

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