Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Catholic dioceses in New York State on Aug. 14, as a one-year window opened offering victims of child sexual abuse the ability to sue their alleged abusers and institutions they say were negligent in protecting minors.
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan in a video message on Twitter noted that Aug. 14 was the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his life at the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp in Poland to spare the life of a young father. The saint, the cardinal said, is revered for his bravery but also for something else: “He kept his faith and hope and love in a very dark time.
“Today I don't mind admitting to you is a dark time in the life of the church,” Cardinal Dolan said. “You've probably been hearing that this is the first day of the opening of the statute of limitations, so we’re going to hear a lot today about people bringing suit against the Catholic Church and other organizations, public schools, government organizations, Boy Scouts and hospitals ... you name it ... for past sexual abuse.”
Among the dozens of priests named in new lawsuits is at least one bishop, the Most Rev. Howard Hubbard, who led the Diocese of Albany from 1977 to 2014. He is accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing a 16-year-old in the 1990s.
He added, “It’s especially difficult for our beloved victims and their families to see all this drug up again, to have these wounds reopened. It’s a tough time for our victims, survivors and families and I'd ask you to pray for them.” He also asked for their prayers for others in the archdiocese: “for the overwhelming majority of our great priests who’ve been extraordinarily faithful, virtuous and hardworking in the midst of all this. They suffer.”
Among the dozens of priests named in new lawsuits is at least one bishop, the Most Rev. Howard Hubbard, who led the Diocese of Albany from 1977 to 2014. He is accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing a 16-year-old in the 1990s, charges his lawyer denied, according to a report in the Albany Times Union.
In a statement, the Diocese of Albany said that when it received word of the lawsuit, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger contacted the papal nuncio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, as is now required by a church law implemented earlier this year.
“While this charge is extremely distressing for the Diocese of Albany, the Bishop Emeritus is entitled to be treated in the same manner as any other priest or deacon who has been accused of abuse,” the statement read. “The diocese has clear policies and procedures in place when such accusations arise, and we expect those to be followed in this case, and in every case.”
Bishop Scharfenberger released a video earlier this week offering support to victims, saying that he and others in the diocese “admire the bravery of those who have come forward to share their stories of betrayal and pain to help other survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”
“In the coming weeks and months, the Diocese of Albany plans to redouble our existing efforts to bring about reconciliation with survivors,” the bishop continued. “We are a wounded family, and we cannot heal unless and until we care for and walk with those among us who have suffered in silence for so long. Today we take the next steps on this long and necessary path.”
There is no place in our family of faith for abusers to act out, regardless of their status, or to hide from their crimes. Nor should anyone fear calling them out, past or present. #cva— Bishop Ed (@AlbBishopEd) August 14, 2019
The law firm Jeff Anderson and Associates, which has represented many victims of clergy sexual abuse, said in a press release the day before the law went into effect that it had planned to bring more than 200 suits against Catholic dioceses in New York.
More than 80 of those claims are being made against priests from the Diocese of Buffalo. Its leader, the Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, has faced numerous calls for his resignation in recent months because of allegations that he has mishandled cases of sexual abuse. On Wednesday, three priests who are still in ministry were accused of sexual abuse of minors in new lawsuits.
Bishop Malone released a statement on Aug. 13 in which he apologized to victims of sexual abuse. “Our primary concern is to do the right thing for the victim-survivors of abuse and, at the same time, ensure that the mission of our Church continues,” Bishop Malone said.
The law creating the litigation window—the Child Victims Act—passed earlier this year following more than a decade of debate in Albany. The law also extends the statute of limitations for molestation going forward, giving new victims until age 55 to file lawsuits and until age 28 to seek criminal charges, compared to 23 under the old statute.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York said in a statement on Aug. 14 that the archdiocese had been preparing for an influx of new lawsuits since the measure was signed into law in February, “even as we continue to invite people to consider our successful program to bring compensation quickly to qualified claimants through the archdiocesan Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program.” The spokesperson, Joseph Zwilling, was referring to a program set up in 2016 by the Archdiocese of New York to pay financial settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse. The archdiocese said the fund has paid more than $65 million to 323 victims. Other New York dioceses have set up similar funds.
“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, particularly victim-survivors and their families,” Mr. Zwilling added.
Given the high number of expected allegations, which include claims against Catholic dioceses as well as the Boy Scouts of America and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the State of New York is designating 45 judges to handle the new cases, CNN reported Wednesday.
“The fiscal impact on the Catholic Church and other organizations won’t become clear for weeks or months,” Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, the bishops’ public policy arm, said on Aug. 14. “Today is a day for survivors to tell their stories and to take an important step on their long journey toward healing.
“The bishops want to accompany survivors on this journey, to thank them for bravely coming forward, and to again apologize unconditionally for what they endured at the hands of those who so grievously abused their trust,” he said in a statement.
Contending with abuse claims has proven costly for Catholic dioceses; many have filed for bankruptcy since 2002.
In 2017, the Diocese of St. Cloud in Minnesota announced it was filing for bankruptcy after more than 70 civil suits were brought against the diocese during a three-year window that ended in 2016. In California, a one-year window that began in 2003 resulted in payouts of more than $1 billion by Catholic entities.
Seven states—Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming—have no statutes of limitation for felony sex crimes.
Material from The Associated Press and Catholic News Service was used in this report.
The headline and photo for this article have been updated to make it clear that the Most Rev. Howard Hubbard is the former bishop of Albany.