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Hundreds filed lawsuits under Child Victims Act in New York

“We have a voice today,” one priest sex abuse survivor said. “It used to be one on one against the church, against the Boy Scouts,against other organizations. Today we have a chorus of voices."
Image: Bridie Farrell, Joseph CaramannoJeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson tallies sexual abuse perpetrators before a news conference, in New York, Aug. 14, 2019.Richard Drew / AP

Jeffrey Eskridge has spent 42 years dreaming of the moment he’d be able to strike back at the Roman Catholic priest who he says raped him repeatedly as a teenager.

He finally got his chance Wednesday with a Child Victims Act lawsuit filed in Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

Hundreds of child sex abuse victims filed lawsuits in New York Wednesday, the first day that the Child Victims Act’s one-year window opened, allowing victims to sue regardless of when the alleged acts happened.

The Child Victims Act, which also extends the statute of limitations for criminal charges against child sex abusers, was bitterly opposed by the Catholic Church and other religious groups and blocked for years by Republicans in the state legislature. It covers victims who’ve alleged they were abused as children and teenagers by priests, teachers, scoutmasters and doctors. The group filing suits on Wednesday also included victims of deceased accused child trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

“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,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks said in a statement.

For Eskridge, the lawsuit is payback for what happened to him at age 15 when the priest who was running the shelter where he was living at the time overpowered him.

“I was sleeping in a dorm and he said he would pray over me to get the demons and alcohol out of me,” Eskridge, who now lives in Maryland, told NBC News. “When I pushed him away, he said this is what I need to do to stay here….I was homeless and I had to comply.”

Among those filing lawsuits Wednesday was one man who said that he brought his abuse allegations to the attention of Pope John Paul II, who he claims took no action at the time.

James Grein, was one of the men whose accusations of sexual abuse resulted in the defrocking of the once powerful Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, said he personally told the late Polish pontiff about the abuse during a 1988 Vatican audience.

“He blessed me, he put his hands on me, then he dismissed me,” Grein said during a press conference outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

Grein’s claim was also laid out in the complaint he filed in New York Superior Court Wednesday targeting the Archdiocese of New York and the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, a parish in Manhattan where McCarrick once served as vicar.

It said Grein was coerced into being McCarrick’s “special boy” and that he was subjected to repeated instances of sexual abuse from age 12 to 17.

Image; James Grein
James Grein.Law Offices of Mitchell Garabedian

Asked, in light of his claims that the former pope ignored his allegations, whether John Paul should have been made a saint, Grein answered, "No."

Grein's lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who became famous after his efforts to go after pedophile priests in Boston were dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight” was with him at the press conference.

“Take away the robes, take away the religion, and they’re just criminals,” Garabedian said.

NBC News reached out for comment about Grein's allegation to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which referred a reporter to Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York.

Zwilling, in turn, urged a reporter to reach out to the Papal Nuncio in Washington, who did not return a call or email for comment on Grein's startling claim about Pope John Paul II.

McCarrick was defrocked by Pope Francis earlier this year after a canonical investigation found him guilty of “sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults.” He was also found guilty in the investigation of soliciting sex during the sacrament of confession.

The New York State Court system deployed 45 judges specifically to deal with the onslaught of lawsuits, including a dozen in New York City, public information officer Lucian Chalfen said.

Image: Brian Toale
Brian Toale, 66, who says he was molested by an employee at a Catholic high school he attended on Long Island, was one of the leaders in the fight to pass the Child Victims Act.Bebeto Matthews / AP

“We have a voice today,” Brian Toale, a priest sex abuse survivor who was one of the leaders of the drive to pass the Child Victims Act, said Wednesday outside the Manhattan courthouse. “It used to be one on one against the church, against the Boy Scouts, against other organizations. Today we have a chorus of voices. We are being listened to, we are being heard, we are being believed. There is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not an oncoming train.”

Zwilling said the Archdiocese of New York had been bracing for the onslaught of lawsuits.

“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,” Zwilling said in a statement.

Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, said “the fiscal impact on the Catholic Church and other organizations won’t become clear for weeks or months.”

“Today is a day for survivors to tell their stories and to take an important step on their long journey toward healing,” Poust said in an emailed statement. “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. As always, we urge survivors of clergy abuse to go immediately and directly to law enforcement, and also to report the abuse to the diocese where it occurred.”

Dozens of less well-known current and former New York priests were also named in lawsuits filed across the state Wednesday.

Lawsuits filed by Manhattan attorney Jeff Herman give a snapshot of the kinds of sexual abuse that was buried for decades. The victims in his cases are identified only by their initials because of the stigma and shame.

There is B.F., who says he was sexually assaulted starting at age 13 by a Westchester County priest from 1982 to 1983.

There is R.G., who said he was an altar boy in the 1980s when he was sexually assaulted by the principal of his Catholic school in Newburgh, New York.

There is R.S., who claims a Manhattan priest pulled him out of his Catechism class back in 1957 and sexually assaulted him multiple times when was just 10-years-old.

Attorneys from the Marsh Law Firm in Manhattan and the Seattle-based and Pfau, Cochran, Vertelis, Amala law firm, began filing lawsuits after midnight at jurisdictions across New York State.

Between the two firms, they represent 550 victims, New York attorney Jennifer Freeman said. Of those, 167 allege they were abused by Catholic priests.

“This is a life-changing moment for all New Yorkers who were blocked from bringing their abusers and the institutions that shielded them to justice,” Freeman said. “The powerful institutions who fought this law will soon be held accountable.”

Freeman said they are also going to bat on behalf of dozens of other people who are filing sex abuse lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America and Rockefeller University, which employed a doctor named Reginald Archibald who reportedly abused thousands of children during his 30-year career at the hospital.

“Dr. Reginald Archibald may be the most prolific sex abuser in history, after abusing more than a thousand children under the guise of medical research and treatment between 1948 and 1990 at New York City’s Rockefeller University Hospital,” the law firms said in a statement.

Archibald died in 2007.

“Rockefeller University is committed to acting responsibly and working constructively with former patients of Dr. Archibald,” Rockefeller University said in a statement Wednesday. “We profoundly apologize to his patients who experienced pain and suffering as a result of his reprehensible conduct.”

Freeman provided statements from some of the victims her team of lawyers represent, like 60-year-old Raul Diaz, who is suing the Boy Scouts of America.

“The abuse I faced as a child has stayed with me for decades as an adult, but that moment at 12:01, when my lawsuit was filed, marked the start of bringing closure for me and many other survivors.” said Diaz, who joined the Boy Scouts at age 10 in 1969 and says he was abused by his scoutmaster during camping trips in New York and New Jersey.

In response to the new wave of lawsuits, the BSA released a statement that basically restated the organization's commitment to "protecting Scouts and upholding our values as an organization."

"We support retroactive reforms of civil statute of limitations if an organization knowingly concealed or otherwise withheld evidence of wrongdoing," it says. "We also support retroactive statute of limitations reform for claims against individual abusers."