An unprecedented wave of lawsuits from sex abuse survivors is expected to flood New York courthouses on Wednesday, when the state hands survivors a one-time-only opportunity to sue their attackers — no matter how long ago the abuse took place.
Only a handful of states have ever opened up so-called “lookback windows,” which temporarily suspend statute of limitation laws and let child sex abuse survivors, of any age, sue their abusers and the institution they represented. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement and its revelations about institutions’ commitment to covering up sexual abuse, an unprecedented number of state legislatures weighed implementing similar windows.
New York will become the first to actually follow through. Then, in December, New Jersey will open its own, two-year window.
“No one’s really kind of faced this kind of volume, because it’s not only a large number, but a short period of time.”
Attorney Jennifer Freeman’s White Plains-based Marsh Law Firm represents close to 550 sex abuse survivors who plan to file lawsuits over the next year. Steve Boyd and his Rochester law firm have more than 200 clients who will do the same. Jordan Merson, of New York City’s Merson Law, has more than 100.
“It’s been nonstop for us. I’m just working constantly,” Freeman said. “No one’s really kind of faced this kind of volume, because it’s not only a large number, but a short period of time. It’s a one-year, one-time window. You gotta get your claim in this year, or that’s it.”
“I don’t think the public is prepared to understand that they’re going to learn about a lot of people that they trusted with their children who were, in fact, child predators,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of Child USA, which supports reforming statutes of limitation. “It’s really common and without these cases going through the courts, it’s easy for the public to keep assuming, ‘Oh, this is a rare event. This wouldn’t happen to my child.’ And that’s just not true.”
Institutions like the Catholic Church had long lobbied against lookback windows, and for good reason. After Minnesota opened its window, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis declared bankruptcy and paid $210 million to 450 survivors. A California window led the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to pay 508 survivors a record $660 million.
The threat isn’t only to these institutions’ coffers. The appeal of groups like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America largely depends whether you buy their claim to higher moral authority or their ability to mold young people. Lawsuits that expose systemic, decades-long cover-ups can erode that crucial credibility.
Kevin Dow, for one, doesn’t plan to ever step into a church again.
“I really have a sour taste in my mouth for not only the Catholic Church but, unfortunately, for church in general,” he said. “I just don’t feel like those people who are involved in churches are honest, good people.”
A retired Navy sailor, Dow is now 52 years old, the average age when sex abuse survivors come foward, according to Child USA. Before this year, he’d never spoken out about Father George Boxelaar, who, Dow said, sexually assaulted him multiple times; he still hasn’t told his wife. Dow said he was abused while he served as an altar boy, between the ages of 7 and 16 in the late 1970s and ‘80s.
On Wednesday, Dow will sue the Archdiocese of New York for the alleged abuse.
“I’m not hiding anything. I have nothing to be ashamed of or to be afraid of anymore,” he said. “I am normally a very, very private person; but when it comes to this, I think it’s a very important thing to have us survivors finally have our say and have some closure in the future hopefully.”
Then, he amended, “Maybe not total closure, because once again that stuff never leaves you. It’s just always there somewhere.”
“I just don’t feel like those people who are involved in churches are honest, good people.”
Boxelaar, who served as a member of the Carmelite order, died in his native Holland in 1990, at age 81, Father Mario Esposito, prior provincial of the Carmelites’ North American Province of St. Elias, told VICE News in an email. Allegations first arose against Boxelaar between 1984 and 1985, Esposito said.
“When allegations against Fr. Boxelaar surfaced and the situation gradually became clear, the Carmelites took action to remove him from his ministry and the entire matter was made known to the police, district attorney and Archdiocese of New York,” Esposito said. Boxelaar, however, was never formally defrocked.
In 2002, at least 25 other people told a local New York newspaper that they had also been abused by Boxelaar. Esposito declined to comment further on Dow’s allegations, citing a lack of details.
“We take Mr. Dow’s allegations very seriously. His lawsuit is clearly an indication that he is looking to resolve an issue that has caused him considerable pain,” Esposito wrote. “Once the contents of his planned lawsuit are made to us, you can be assured that we will work within the letter and spirit of the law to respond openly and honestly to his concerns.”
He added, “We deeply regret anything that may have taken place all these many years ago, as well as the effects that they have had on Mr. Dow.”
The Archdiocese of New York, which will also be named as a defendant in Dow’s lawsuit, declined to comment specifically on his allegations, given that it has not yet viewed the lawsuit. In a statement, Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the diocese, said sex abuse survivors are still welcome to participate in a compensation program paid for by the diocese.
“While we don’t know for sure what will happen, we would expect a number of lawsuits to be filed in coming days against a wide variety of institutions, both public and private, including the Church,” Zwilling said. “As always, we encourage anyone with an allegation of abuse to bring it immediately to law enforcement, and we invite all people to pray for peace and healing for anyone who has suffered from the sin and crime of sexual abuse of minors, wherever it occurred, particularly for victim-survivors and their families.”
“I’m a lucky one”
Beyond opening the lookback window, New York’s Child Victims Act will also loosen existing statute of limitations. Before the legislation, people had only until their 23rd birthday to pursue criminal charges; now, they’ll have until their 28th. They’ll also be able to sue until they turn 55.
The first time Child USA CEO Hamilton called a press conference for the act, back in 2003, she said that no press came. Securing this window took years of activism by sexual abuse survivors, like Brian Toale.
“Most of my clients call me up and they say, ‘This horrible thing happened to me and I want accountability.”
In the early ‘70s, Toale said, he was sexually abused by a former staffer at Chaminade High School, a Catholic all boys’ school on Long Island.
“When I graduated, I just kind of, like, slowly melted down,” said Toale. “I only lasted a few months in school. Went through jobs, joined the Air Force to fix myself, went AWOL. It was crazy.”
He had substance abuse issues and got into what Toale called “monumental, secret debt — a couple of times.” It wasn’t until he got into his 60s, and started 12-step recovery, that Toale really started to reckon with what happened. In 2016, Toale went public with his story. He soon started traveling to Albany, home of the New York state legislature, to fight for the Child Victims Act.
“It is just so important for me to give that to anyone else. Even a piece of what I have found can change lives. That is the number one reason I talk, I write, I try to get the word out in any way I can. Because I’m a lucky one,” said Toale. He’s now a Manhattan-based printer who, when asked if he’s Catholic, holds up the silver “om” necklace hanging on his chest as an answer.
“I didn’t make this up, but I love to say it: I want people to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train,” he said.
When Democrats seized majorities in both legislative chambers in the 2018 midterms, the Child Victims Act’s passage was all but assured. Even though he’d supported the bill, Toale wasn’t initially sure that he would file a lawsuit. Now, though, Toale is clear: He wants answers.
“Most of my clients don’t call me up and say, ‘I want money.’ Most of my clients call me up and they say, ‘This horrible thing happened to me and I want accountability. I want responsibility,” said Merson, Toales’ lawyer. Before the window, he said, “Many times, I would have victims call me up and say, ‘Can we just try to find out what happened?’ And we would try to call and we would get absolutely no answer, because there was no accountability. Now, we have an opportunity to take discovery.”
A spokesperson for Chaminade High School declined to comment on Toale’s allegations or the pending lawsuit. The Diocese of Rockville Centre, which Toale will also name as a defendant, didn’t immediately reply to a VICE News request for comment.
In addition to the New York Catholic dioceses and Boy Scouts, attorneys who spoke with VICE News are also preparing lawsuits against other religions, schools, orphanages, and hospitals.
“There’s not a single demographic, you know what I mean? But there’s a lot of commonalities,” said lawyer Boyd. “I just met with a family whose son tried to commit suicide. We represent a family whose son did commit suicide. I’ve got clients who — everyone in their family did really well, but they ended up in jail. A lot of people in AA.”
New York’s most prominent institutions are bracing for the window’s impact.
In May, the research institution Rockefeller University Rockefeller concluded that endocrinologist Reginald Archibald, who worked for the hospital between the 1940s and ‘80s, molested his underage patients. When the hospital asked for information about Archibald, who died in 2007, in late 2018, more than 900 people responded.
Last week, Rockefeller sued its insurers — indicating that the hospital is worried the companies won’t pay for what are sure to be expensive lawsuits.
The Archdiocese of New York also jumped on this train: In July, the archdiocese — which covers New York City — sued more than two-dozen insurance companies in an effort to force them to pay off claims stemming from sex abuse lawsuits. (In late January, weeks before the Child Victims Act was signed into law, the Catholic Bishops of New York State’s lobbying arm tweeted that it no longer opposed the bill because it had been updated to clarify that both private and public institutions could be sued.)
The specter of bankruptcy also looms large; the Boy Scouts, for example, have not ruled out filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Such a filing can, at least temporarily, halt or complicate lawsuits and block discovery of documents that could finally reveal who knew what when.
Attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel’s firm, Seeger Weiss, represents more than 170 New York sex abuse survivors who plan to file during the lookback window. But Simpson Tuegel lives in Texas, where lookback legislation has not garnered the traction it’s amassed in more northern, liberal states.
“This is something that touches people in all cultures, political backgrounds, and faiths,” she said of child sex abuse. “And to want to give people who have been through that an avenue to get answers and compensation, for something that was not their fault and was often very preventable, just makes sense. And it shouldn’t be a political issue but it is, sometimes.”
Cover: Brian Toale holds a yearbook photo of himself from senior year — the same year, Toale says, he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a staffer at his high school. (Photo by Carter Sherman)