Dozens of people in New York state who were victims of sexual abuse as children sued institutions including the Roman Catholic Church in New York on Wednesday, the first day a new law temporarily enabled them to file lawsuits over decades-old crimes.
About 85 people had filed lawsuits against the church in New York by late morning, according to New York County Supreme Court records. Most of them accuse priests of sexually abusing them as children and church leaders of covering up the priests’ crimes.
The state’s landmark Child Victims Act includes a provision that, beginning Wednesday, lifts for one year a statute of limitations that had barred older complaints and which critics said was too restrictive. The law is expected to lead to hundreds of lawsuits against churches, schools and youth groups.
The change in the law means people of any age in New York state have a year to file a sexual abuse lawsuit against an alleged offender. Previously, most victims of childhood sexual abuse only had till the age of 23 to bring criminal charges or to seek damages in civil lawsuits.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called these limits “antiquated” upon signing the measure into law in February.
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.
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.
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 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.
A lawsuit was also filed against Boy Scouts of America, accusing the national organization of knowingly employing thousands of leaders who were suspected of molesting children.
The group did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday but earlier this year said it encouraged victims to come forward as the law changed.
Cases are expected to be filed in the coming weeks against churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions across New York City, with defendants ranging from the plaintiffs’ relatives and neighbors to members of the clergy.
One law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, said it would sue on behalf of 400 people 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.
After the one-year period expires, victims will have until the age of 55 to sue alleged abusers.