Holding priests to account

New law broadens options for clergy-abuse victims


More victims of child sexual abuse will have the chance to hold their abusers accountable, now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act on Feb. 14. The law will raise the age in the statute of limitations from 23 to 28 for people to seek criminal charges against their abusers; allow victims of such crimes to initiate a civil lawsuit before they are 55; and provide a one-year window to initiate lawsuits for those whose claims have been time-barred.

“Today is a new day for survivors of child sexual abuse in New York state,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who co-sponsored the bill. “The Child Victims Act will not only give victims a chance at justice, it will also protect our communities from abusers.”

The bill signing came several months after the state attorney general’s office issued subpoenas to the state’s eight dioceses, including the Diocese of Rockville Centre, as it launched an investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the cover-up of such crimes.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre continues to pay settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse through its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. In the first two phases of the program, 297 claims were filed, according to Camille Biros, an administrator of the program. Of those, 250 settlements have been paid or are in the payment process. According to two lawyers that represent dozens of victims in the program, settlement amounts have ranged from $25,000 to $500,000. To receive compensation, victims had to agree that they would not pursue legal action against the church in the future.

One of these victims was Thomas McGarvey, who alleged that the Rev. Robert Brown began sexually abusing him at St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Franklin Square when he was 16. The abuse, which allegedly took place in the church’s rectory, continued from 1981 to 1989, McGarvey said at a news conference in 2017. Brown has since died.

“There’s always this feeling of guilt, wondering if I could have stopped him from abusing others if I had come out against him sooner,” McGarvey said when he received his half-million-dollar settlement from the diocese. “But I was a kid back then. But I’m glad more people are coming out with their stories, and maybe they can find justice and move past this, too.”

About eight years ago, McGarvey decided to seek support to help him deal with his past abuse. He met with Dr. Robert Hoatson, of Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that provides counseling for survivors of sexual abuse. Hoatson is a former priest who left the Archdiocese of Newark after speaking out about sexual abuse that took place there.

In one of the counseling sessions with McGarvey, Hoatson said he doubted whether McGarvey could find justice after all these years because of New York’s previous law. “New York was at the very bottom for victims’ rights, but now it’s leading on this issue,” said Hoatson, who has been advocating for the Child Victims Act since 2003. “Once victims realize that the whole of New York state is behind them, their fears of not finding justice or not being believed will end.”

Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who has represented McGarvey and hundreds of other sexual abuse victims in New York — and who was portrayed by the actor Stanley Tucci in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” which focused on the Boston Globe’s series of stories detailing the abuse allegations against priests — said that the Child Victims Act gives survivors a chance to heal deep wounds, and gives children an chance to be protected.

“By standing on the determined and bold shoulders of sexual abuse victims or survivors, New York has set an example for most states and countries to follow when amending sexual abuse statute of limitations laws,” Garabedian wrote in an e-mail to the Herald. “For those sexual abuse victims who have unfortunately taken their own lives because of the trauma of being sexually abused, you have not been forgotten.”

He added in a phone interview that the act would enable survivors to gain access to church and institutional records, which will provide much-needed transparency and could provide answers about what church supervisors knew and what they could have done to prevent the abuse.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre had not returned the Herald’s request for comment on the new law at press time, but the Catholic Bishops of New York State wrote in a statement that they had long called for strengthening the Child Victims Act. They will continue to advocate for the elimination of the statute of limitations, the statement added, to provide compensation programs for those who prefer that option to litigation and to provide mandatory safe-environment training for anyone who works with children.

“We pray that the passage of the Child Victims Act brings some measure of healing to all survivors by offering them a path of recourse and reconciliation,” the bishops wrote. “The legislation now recognizes that child sexual abuse is an evil not just limited to one institution, but a tragic societal ill that must be addressed in every place where it exists.”

Ronny Reyes contributed to this story.