World

New York law change opens door for alleged Epstein, Catholic Church victims to sue

Scores of people in New York state who were sexually abused as children sued institutions including the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, the first day a new law temporarily enabled them to file lawsuits over decades-old crimes.

427 lawsuits filed across New York state on Wednesday

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in Indiana in a 2015 file photo. 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. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

Scores of people in New York state who were sexually abused as children sued institutions including the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, the first day a new law temporarily enabled them to file lawsuits over decades-old crimes.

By the close of business on Wednesday, 427 such lawsuits had been filed in courts across the state, according to a courts system spokesperson. The vast majority of them were against the church and its various dioceses in the state, as claimants accused priests of sexually abusing them as children and church leaders of covering up the priests' crimes, according to state court records.

The state's landmark Child Victims Act includes a provision that lifts, for one year, a statute of limitations that had barred older complaints and which critics said was too restrictive. Although the majority of the new lawsuits appeared to be against the church, other people sued schools, hospitals and individuals, and at least two people sued the Boy Scouts of America.

The change in the law means people of any age in New York state have a year to file a retroactive sexual abuse lawsuit against an alleged offender.

After the one-year period expires, victims will have until the age of 55 to sue alleged abusers. That is up from a previous age limit of just 23 years old.

'Shaking like a leaf': emotional plaintiff

James Grein, now in his early 60s and among those who sued the church for negligence, said he was sexually abused as a child for years in New York and elsewhere by the priest who had baptized him, Theodore McCarrick.

McCarrick would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the church, serving as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006. The Vatican defrocked him in February after finding him guilty of sexually abusing children and adults, making him one of the most high-profile church figures to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times.

James Grein, 61, speaks at his Virginia home speaking to the Associated Press. Grein is suing over abuse he alleges by the now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

In a news conference outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, Grein told reporters he was both joyful and "shaking like a leaf."

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

His lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented victims of clergy sex abuse for over a decade, said they would use the expected jury trials to learn more about what Vatican officials knew at the time the abuse was happening.

"The coverup has ended, and now we're going right to the top," Garabedian said. "Take away their robes, take away their religion, and they're just criminals."

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

The coverup has ended, and now we're going right to the top. Take away their robes, take away their religion, and they're just criminals.- Mitchell Garabedian, lawyer for plaintiff James Grein

It 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 $66 million US in compensation to 335 victims, as determined by a board of arbitrators and funded by a loan secured against its valuable real estate portfolio. 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.

Woman accuses Epstein of sexual abuse

At least one woman who said she was sexually abused by the late Jeffrey Epstein sued the disgraced financier's estate early on Wednesday, and more were expected to follow.

Jennifer Araoz, 32, said in her complaint that she was starting out in high school when an Epstein associate brought her to the financier's massive mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side, beginning a grooming process that led to months of sexual abuse, including what she called a "brutal rape."

Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims have been denied justice once again, lawyer Jack Scarola tells As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. 7:42

Araoz's lawsuit also targets former Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell, saying she facilitated Epstein's abuse of several girls by overseeing their recruitment and "ensuring that approximately three girls a day were made available to him for his sexual pleasure."

Epstein, who once counted Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former president Bill Clinton as friends, died at age 66 on Saturday.

He had been found unresponsive in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, where he had been detained after charges were filed against him earlier this summer. He apparently hanged himself, according to federal prison authorities.

Boy Scouts also facing lawsuits

At least two lawsuits were also filed against Boy Scouts of America, which is based in Irving, Texas. One accused the national organization of knowingly employing thousands of leaders who were suspected of molesting children.

The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement on Wednesday that it "strongly supports efforts to ensure that anyone who commits sexual abuse is held accountable." The organization apologized to anyone harmed during their time in the group and said it paid for victims to receive counselling.

"We do, however, have concerns with reforms that impose retroactive liability on organizations that did not have actual knowledge of the specific misconduct underlying an allegation of abuse," the group said in response to questions about the new law.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is shown signing the Child Victims Act on Feb. 14. New York had what some legal experts considered some of the most onerous conditions for child sex abuse victims to seek civil remedies. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law in February.

"This is society's way of saying we are sorry," Cuomo said at the bill signing event. "We are sorry for what happened to you. We are sorry that it took us so long to acknowledge what happened to you. We are sorry that justice took so long. We are sorry to the other victims who, in the interim, were also violated because society was slow in acting."

One law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, said it would file 400 lawsuits under the Child Victims Act just 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, including Seeger Weiss, said it would be representing at least 170 plaintiffs across the state, many with complaints against the Roman Catholic Church.