The window opened and the claims filed in. As the New York Child Victims Act’s (CVA) one-year provision went into effect on Aug. 14, survivors of childhood sexual abuse took advantage of the opportunity to seek justice and hold their abusers accountable. The claims brought the Diocese of Rockville Centre into the spotlight again as a number of lawsuits filed on the first day named the religious institution as a defendant.
“This is a really historic event that has served to catapult New York from the back of the pack to the front of the pack for child protection,” said attorney Mike Reck from the law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates, which represents a number of survivors.
The act, signed into law on Feb. 14 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, provides a one-year suspension of the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to bring their claims against individual abusers and institutions responsible for those abusers. For the next year, victims older than 23 can file lawsuits, regardless of when the abuse occurred. The institutions are not limited to the church, but include any public or private schools or organizations that “allowed abusers to access children or shielded abusers,” according to Reck.
“They can now be held accountable for the first time here in New York,” Reck said.
At a press conference at the Long Island Marriott, on Wednesday, Aug. 14, Reck said his office had filed 262 lawsuits in New York State in the less than 12 hours since the window opened. Of those, he said 19 name the Diocese of Rockville Centre as a defendant, and of those 19 lawsuits, he said, 20 alleged perpetrators are identified, including six people named for the first time.
One of the newly named perpetrators is Sister Maureen Gregory, alleged to have abused a 16-year-old boy at St. Agnes Cathedral High School in 1965. Her current whereabouts are unknown, according to Reck. She joins the list of St. Agnes Cathedral employees previously named for alleged abuse, including longtime Bishop John McGann, Msgr. Edward Melton, the Rev. Robert L. Brown and Father John J. McGeever. McGann served as bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre from 1976 to 1999. He died in 2002, at age 77.
One survivor, Steve Werner, of North Carolina, came out publicly a year ago and applied for the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) — initiated in 2017 by the Diocese of Rockville Centre to “provide a confidential mechanism for survivors to be heard, to receive compensation and some measure of healing and justice” according to the diocese — before the CVA was signed. Under the program, claimants agree to not pursue legal action in the future. According to the diocese, 277 claimants have accepted compensation totaling more than $50 million, with 75 to 80 claims still being processed.
But, Werner, however, decided to bring his case to court instead. Werner, 61, said he suffered abuse as a child in the 1970s while part of a folk singing group led by the late Rev. Peter Charland in St. James.
“I don’t know if many people understand that a lifelong sentence comes from that abuse,” Werner said, noting that he stayed silent for 45 years and only began treatment two and a half years ago. “The carrying of that secret— the shame and guilt that it drives — is really the trauma that comes from the abuse. I can get over the abuse, but burying that secret really affects everything in your life.”
He explained that for him, filing a claim was not about receiving payment.
“There’s an aspect that’s about justice, but it’s also about exposing to people who are still suffering in silence, not willing to give over their own shame and guilt, to start the healing process,” said Werner. “I felt strongly that by exposing myself publicly, others would find the strength to come forward. I think that’s the beginning of the healing process.”
“I’m also looking for real change in the Catholic Church,” Werner added.
Still a believer in God, Werner is no longer Catholic. In his opinion, everything coming out of the church as a result of the exposure is a “PR move” aimed at members of organizations to save the image of the church, while nothing is being done to ensure the abuse will no longer occur.
“What I’m after is finding a way to get the church to really change the behavior that creates an environment for pedophiles to thrive,” Werner said.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre said in a statement that it takes all claims seriously and investigates all allegations of sexual abuse.
“The diocese continuously works to strengthen its efforts towards child protection, abuse prevention and pastoral outreach to survivors,” the statement read. “Through our Child Victims Assistance Program, the diocese reports all allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to the appropriate district attorney. Allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated. Members of the clergy against whom a credible and substantiated claim of child abuse has been made are permanently removed from ministry.”
Stating that it hopes victims can find some measure of healing through the CVA, the diocese said that many of the incidents are decades old.
“Our Church continues to suffer as a result of past sins of sexual abuse of minors,” said John O. Barres, Bishop of Rockville Centre. “Victim survivors of abuse and their families also continue to carry the terrible effects of that abuse.”
Additionally, the diocese said it has been working with financial and legal experts for the past few months to prepare for the claims. Barres explained that funds for the IRCP came from strong investment returns and that diocesan insurance programs also helped fund the compensation program. He clarified that parish collections and financial donations made through the Catholic Ministries Appeal “will not be used to resolve claims for clergy sexual abuse.”
The privacy of the survivors’ identities is something that might prevent some people from coming forward. However, in New York, the courts allow protection of survivor identity. Attorney Nahid Shaikh, of Robins Kaplan LLP, said a pseudonym can be provided to claimants throughout the litigation.
“Survivors don’t need to come forward publicly to have their stories heard or to make an impact,” said attorney Nahid Shaikh, of Robins Kaplan LLP.
While acknowledging that coming forward is painful, the attorneys noted that, now that the one-year window opened, the clock is ticking. Trusha Goffe, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, stressed the importance of coming forward.
“If you’re carrying a secret and want to share—not only against clergy but for all survivors of childhood sexual abuse— you have an opportunity to seek some measure of accountability for what you suffered,” Goffe said.