More than 400 suits had been filed by the end of day Wednesday across New York, once the statute of limitations was lifted
ROCHESTER — People who claimed to be victims of sexual abuse as children looked forward with resolution, and hope, to the prospect of taking their accusations to court.
“I want to be able to sit there, look at him, and just look into his eyes,” declared Brian DeLaFranier.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, DeLaFranier lived just a few doors from Saint Andrews Church in Rochester, and that’s where he said the parish priest, Father Robert Gaudio, sexually abused him at the age of 14 after a period of careful grooming.
“It started off innocently as the priest befriending me,” he recalled.
On Wednesday, DeLaFranier filed a formal lawsuit over what happened. Under New York’s new Child Victims Act, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in February, a one-year “look back” window opened on August 14, effectively suspending the statute of limitations for abuse lawsuits for one year, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, schools and hospitals, the late financier Jeffrey Epstein are some of the targets named in a flurry of sex abuse lawsuits filed Wednesday in New York as the state began accepting the cases once blocked by the statute.
In all, 427 sex abuse lawsuits were filed by 5 p.m. Wednesday across New York. Some of the cases have one plaintiff, while others include several dozen.
In the Rochester area, almost 40 lawsuits were filed against the Rochester Catholic diocese, schools, and religious orders as well as the Webster public school district.
Many of the dozens of plaintiffs who filed the lawsuits say they hoped for a new start after the trauma that derailed their lives for years.
“I want to feel whole. I want my life to get back on track,” said DeLaFranier. “I could have wound up in jail for the thoughts I had of what I wanted to do to this individual… Yes, violence. Very much so.”
Peter Saracino brought similar passion to a 1990s phone conversation with the priest he accused of sexually abusing him at what was then the Immaculate Heart of Mary Capuchin Seminary in Geneva in the 1960s.
“I said 'do they know you're a murderer of souls?’” he recalled asking only to get a reply of silence.
On Wednesday, he too filed suit, seeking justice for “this heinous evil visited upon my young spirit by a Catholic priest, an evil which has profoundly affected the course of my life in so many negative ways.”
The trip to court, and into the public eye, was one some accusers made reluctantly, but some saw as an opportunity to do good.
"I was so ashamed that my innocence had been taken and I didn't tell anybody for a long long time,” said Kevin Higley, formerly of Scottsville.
Higley was 14 in the 1980s when he said Father Paul Cloonan abused him at what was then Saint Mary of the Assumption Church. For years, he told no one but his girlfriend Natalie, now his wife, who he described as his "rock."
Cloonan was defrocked in 2005 and died in 2015, but Higley’s lawyers suspected he had a long history as a predator. Another accuser reported sexual misconduct by Cloonan in the 1950s and attorneys professed a theory that he had numerous other victims from the decades between that era and the abuse reported by Higley.
With the filing of his lawsuit, Higley sought to encourage other victims to come forward and prevent young people from becoming victimized in the future.
“I decided to use my voice to make people aware,” Higley said. “I’ve had different avenues, which I believe is God speaking to me, telling me that I need to speak up for the children. I need to save the children.”
A compensation fund for sexual abuse victims set up by the New York Archdiocese in 2016 has paid out $65 million to 323 people, the archdiocese says. Those victims have waived their right to file lawsuits. The archdiocese is also suing more than two dozen insurance companies in an effort to compel them to cover abuse claims, anticipating that insurers won't pay the claims filed during the litigation window.
Dozens of former Boy Scouts filed suit alleging abuse at the hands of adult leaders in several local scouting. One of them, Michael Schall, says he was molested by a scoutmaster in the Buffalo suburbs in the late 1960s. He said the man told him not to tell anyone. Schall said he struggled to speak out about the abuse for years, convinced he was somehow at fault. "It seems freeing," he said when asked about the suit.
In a response to the suit, the Boy Scouts said: "We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward."
A man and a woman are suing eight members of the Governing Body of the Jehovah's Witnesses over claims that they were sexually abused as children by two different church elders. The male plaintiff, now 48, says he was molested at age 14 by a man serving in a church position who told him he would get in trouble if he reported the abuse. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff's parents ultimately alerted church authorities to the abuse. Their response was to throw both the plaintiff and the person he accused out of the church for engaging in homosexuality. According to the suit, authorities were never notified.
The Jehovah's Witnesses national organization declined to comment.
Includes reporting from The Associated Press