55 child abuse suits filed in Brooklyn as lookback window opens 

August 14, 2019 Emma Whitford
Jeff Herman, left, and Krisel McSweeney, right, of Herman Law on steps of New York County Supreme Court Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Emma Whitford

Fifty-five survivors of childhood sexual abuse filed lawsuits in Brooklyn on Wednesday, marking the opening of a year-long window for New Yorkers of all ages to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions they say turned a blind eye.

The Brooklyn cases constitute one third of 169 cases filed today in New York City, according to a spokesperson for the New York Unified Court System. Plaintiffs filed 94 cases in Manhattan, 11 in the Bronx, six in Queens, and three in Staten Island. Statewide, 427 cases were filed.

“Today is a day of reckoning,” said attorney Jeff Herman of the Herman Law firm, standing outside of New York County Supreme Court on Wednesday afternoon. His office filed three cases in Brooklyn, and plans to file cases at the same rate daily for the rest of the month.

These cases seek monetary damages and allege abuse by individuals, as well as negligence by institutions including the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.

“Unfortunately, the leading offender of not protecting children in New York, by far, is the Catholic Church,” Herman said, adding that he expects to reach settlements in the vast majority of cases.

The lookback window is one key element of the Child Victims Act (CVA), statewide legislation passed in January after years of opposition from the institutions expected to be primary defendants, including the Catholic Church.

Previously, survivors had only until age 21 to bring criminal cases alleging abuse, and until age 23 for civil cases. The CVA extends the statute of limitations to age 26 for criminal cases and 55 for civil cases. The lookback window extends civil filing to survivors of all ages for one year. Advocates have pointed to research that shows the average age for adults to disclose abuse is 52.

Herman said Wednesday that his oldest client is 90 years old.

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Another client is 51-year-old William LaRocca. The late Father Francis Gillen of St. Theresa of Lisiuex in Flatbush allegedly assaulted LaRocca when he was 12 years old. Gillen, who died in 1997, allegedly brought LaRocca to a party with other priests at a lake house in Lake Ronkonkoma in Long Island in the early 1970s. LaRocca says he was fondled and penetrated by Gillen.

“Being able to name your abuser in a court of law, to say that what happened to you as a child was horrifically wrong and that the person who did it ought to be held accountable can be very powerful and very healing for survivors,” said Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs for Safe Horizon, which fought for the passage of the CVA.

Related: What is the Child Victims Act?

The Brooklyn Diocese did not immediately comment on the Gillen suit specifically, though Gillen’s name appears on a 2019 list compiled by the diocese of priests “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.

In a prepared statement Bishop of Brooklyn Nicholas DiMarzio said, “Today we stand with victims who were sexually abused as children.”

DiMarzio also referenced the Brooklyn Diocese’s Independent Compensation and Reconciliation Program, which he said has settled with 500 people to date, as well as survivor support groups and an annual “Mass of Hope and Healing.”

In a statement, the Boy Scouts of America said that “we care deeply about all victims of abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting.” They also cited “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 New York State courts system has made special preparations for the flood of civil suits, training and designating 45 judges statewide to handle them exclusively. Three judges have been assigned specifically to Brooklyn: Justices Ellen Spodek, Edgar Walker and Devin Cohen.

Related: New York courts say they are ready for Child Victims Act to take effect

Court rules recommend a preliminary conference for each case within 30 days of filing, and for discovery to be completed within a year.

“The revived Child Victims Act cases are critically important cases, raising numerous challenging legal issues, that must be adjudicated as consistently and expeditiously as possible across the State,” said Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks in a statement. “We are fully committed to providing appropriate and sufficient resources to achieve that goal.”

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