Deadlines Loom on Sex Abuse Survivor Relief

Abuse survivors Shaun Dougherty (center) and Brian Toale (right) with Jerry Kristal of Lawyers Helping Survivors of Child Sex Abuse, at a May 15 press conference at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. | COURTESY: LAWYERS HELPING SURVIVORS OF CHILD SEX ABUSE

As the deadline approaches for victims of sexual abuse by local priests to file claims under a special fund established by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, legislators in Albany looking to provide more broad-based relief to survivors are scrambling to move bills through the State Senate and Assembly in advance of the Legislature’s adjournment in late June.

Several survivors of childhood victimization, including 47-year-old Shaun Dougherty, a Long Island City restaurant owner, appeared on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on May 15 to urge other victims to enroll in the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, a fund established by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. That fund, in its first phase, was open to survivors who had already made claims against the archdiocese. In its second phase, the program is accepting enrollment from survivors coming forward to the Church formally for the first time. The deadline for registration is July 31.

“This is a unique opportunity that generations of children haven’t had,” said Dougherty, who noted that survivors are giving up no other options simply by enrolling. If they accept a settlement through the fund, however, they must agree to waive their right to any future claims.

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The fund is administered by Ken Feinberg, who was the special master who oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

Dougherty suffered three years of sexual abuse by a priest beginning at age 10 while he was a student at a Catholic elementary school in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. For Dougherty, years of silent shame were followed by many more years in which his parents refused to belief his account of the abuse he suffered. Only after a statewide grand jury convened by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office in 2014 concluded that he had in fact been abused among other youth in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese did Dougherty regain the trust of his parents — just two years before his father’s death.

Today, Dougherty is fortunate is his business and in his relationship with his wife, but even though the diocese back in Pennsylvania acknowledges the harm done him, he has no legal recourse. And though he has no claims against the New York Archdiocese, he is an advocate here and in Albany for reform to help other survivors.

The Dolan fund is limited not just in only aiding abuse survivors in New York, but also in which survivors here it will assist. The Archdiocese of New York only encompasses Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx along with several upstate counties. Victims abused in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island have no similar recourse to the Diocese of Brooklyn or the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

The fund also only covers abuse suffered at the hands of priests or deacons, not that perpetrated by other Church employees or even priests who do not report directly to the Archdiocese.

Mick Meenan, a 50-year-old journalist and former deputy editor at Gay City News, has been in touch for the past year with his high school alma mater, Fordham Prep in the Bronx, about forced oral sexual assault he said he suffered from Fernand Beck, his religion teacher. Though Fordham fired Beck and its president has apologized to Meenan, he is unable to register with the archdiocesan fund for compensation for that abuse. Separately, however, he is preparing a claim regarding abusive behavior by one of his Bronx parish priests.

Though advocates for abuse survivors recommend that any eligible victim register with the Dolan fund, they are separately pressing Albany to take action that would relax what is one of the most stringent statutes of limitations facing abuse victims. Under current law, victims of childhood sexual abuse must either make a criminal complaint or file a civil lawsuit by age 23. Experts on the trauma children face as sexual abuse victims agree that it can often take decades for a survivor to come to grips with their experience and be ready to come forward.

Early this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his support for a plan to eliminate all limits on the time a victim can come forward with a criminal complaint, allow civil suits to be filed for up to 50 years after any abuse, and allow a one-year look-back window for abuse survivors whose cases couldn’t be brought under current law to step forward.

The announcement cheered survivors’ advocates but so far the governor hasn’t taken any concrete steps to further that pledge.

In the meanwhile, Senate Republicans have blocked action on out gay Manhattan Democrat Brad Hoylman’s Child Victims Act, which goes even further than the proposal Cuomo discussed by eliminating any time limitation on filing civil suits. Pressing for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is the ranking member, he was told by the Republican chair, John Bonacic from Sullivan County, that at the direction of Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, the bill would instead be diverted to the Rules Committee, where Hoylman said “it will never see the light of day.”

According to Hoylman, denying his request for a hearing, despite the fact that the requisite one-third of committee members had signed on in support, represented a breach of “rules and protocol,” which he likened to the use of a “nuclear option” by the Senate GOP leadership. Frustrated at the lack of debate about the issue, Hoylman said he merely hears vague concerns from Republicans about “false claims” clogging the courts. The bill, he explained, is opposed not only by groups such as the State Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Boy Scouts, but also by insurance companies that are “vehement” in their objections.

“So it’s the old Albany story,” he said. “Corporate interests versus the needs of the little guy. This is an issue of the utmost importance to the survivors and their families.”

Hoylman’s hope, at this point, is that Cuomo will step forward in the remaining weeks of the session with a governor’s program bill. Saying he is optimistic that is what Cuomo is planning, Hoylman said, “It would be a significant unifying step and move the conversation forward in both houses.” Even with that, he acknowledged, “it is a tall order given the waning days.”

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, the sponsor of a similar bill in her chamber, however, noted that “three weeks left in Albany is an eternity,” given how back-loaded the real legislative work is every session.

“I’ve spoken to the most senior staff in the governor’s office and I am very optimistic that we will get something from them,” Rosenthal told Gay City News. “Senate Republicans, of course, are the ones that are blocking this. But I think with the governor’s leadership, there is enough momentum to finally address a heinous history in this state and in the nation.”

Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment as of publication time.

Hoylman could not conceal his contempt for hypocrisy about protecting children from abuse among his GOP colleagues.

“Today the Senate is considering its 17th bill on sex offenders,” he told Gay City News on May 23. “These are press release bills, one-house bills that won’t be enacted, so the Republicans can go back home and put the fear in their voters that sex offenders will flood their communities.”

Meenan, who said he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse he faced as a youth and is currently battling his landlord in Housing Court, offered an even harsher assessment.

“What does it take for these lawmakers to understand taxpayers foot the bill for pedophiles in lost wages, rents, incarcerations, etc.?” he said. “My possible eviction is a result of my religion teacher having my penis in his mouth.”