ALBANY — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany was the target Monday of 52 new lawsuits alleging sex abuse of children by priests and nuns as much as 63 years ago.
The Guilderland and Minnesota law firms teaming up to represent the victims in these cases have previously filed 22 such lawsuits and say they are preparing 36 more.
Other law firms are separately bringing similar cases.
The state Legislature last year opened a one-year window for sex abuse victims to sue for incidents alleged to have happened far beyond the normal statute of limitations for such litigation.
The COVID-19 crisis put New York’s court system in virtual hibernation this spring, raising the potential that some claims would be shut out, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the window five months before the Legislature extended it by a year.
The blackout was briefly worrisome to the survivors, said Cynthia LaFave, whose Guilderland law firm LaFave, Wein & Frament is filing the lawsuits with Jeff Anderson & Associates of St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I think it was another trauma on people who had suffered a great deal of trauma, to [potentially] have justice denied again,” LaFave said. “But they handled it with immense grace.”
In an emailed response to the new lawsuits in state Supreme County in Albany County, diocese director of communications Mary DeTurris Poust said:
“The diocese takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously. Behind every claim is a suffering person who needs our compassion and assistance. The diocese has not yet been served in any of the 52 cases filed today. Once that occurs, the diocese will review the documents and allegations and take whatever actions may be necessary to inform and safeguard the public. Bishop Scharfenberger remains committed to providing assistance to survivors while allegations are being investigated and beyond.”
The diocese has been dealing with allegations of clergy sex abuse for years. The issue boiled over into a national scandal in the early 2000s.
It was forced to confront its own history — Scharfenberger’s predecessors allowed clergy to remain in their roles after allegations of molestation, or had them moved to other states where more abuse was alleged.
But in most cases the diocese was not vulnerable to civil litigation for abuse years or decades earlier, as the limited period of time for victims to bring action had long since expired.
On the grounds that victims are not emotionally ready to confront their abuse one to five years after the incident or after their 18th birthday, whichever comes second, the state changed the statute of limitations and allowed victims to sue up to age 55. And it created a one-year look-back period allowing lawsuits previously barred by the old statute of limitations.
A flurry of litigation followed. The Buffalo Diocese, with Scharfenberger serving as temporary administrator, filed for bankruptcy protection in February, citing 250 lawsuits in its papers. The Rochester Diocese filed last September after 47 lawsuits were filed.
BURDEN OF PROOF
LaFave uses the term “survivor” instead of “victim” to avoid the suggestion that sex abuse defines the lives of those who were abused.
She said the matter is a long-standing priority for her and her firm.
“We believe very strongly that there has been an insidious and longstanding cover up of sexual abuse in the Albany Diocese,” she said.
Her firm is working with the Minnesota firm because of the breadth of its expertise in clergy sex abuse cases.
LaFave said the sex abuse survivors they represent — listed in court papers as a number and the name “Doe” — mostly still live in the Capital Region.
Asked about the burden of proof in these cases — which may be based on a childhood memory of physical and emotional trauma a half-century ago — LaFave said the testimony of survivors can be enough.
The attorneys are very careful to see that the pieces of the story fit together, she said, and have rejected “a lot” of potential clients who don’t meet that test.
“We screen our cases very carefully,” LaFave said. “We stand behind each one of the cases that we have now commenced.”
The lawsuits are on contingency basis, meaning that the attorneys don’t get paid unless their clients do.
LaFave isn’t worried about that, either.
She believes the diocese has or should have insurance policies that cover the period in question, and also has substantial assets.
The only way to stop the cycle of clergy abuse is to bring it to light, LaFave said, though she thinks the problem is greatly reduced.
“I believe that it is a far better world than it was in decades past,” she said.
In a news release Monday, the two firms laid out the allegations against numerous clergy members by name:
- Father Edward F. English, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1962 to 1964 at St. George in Pittstown.
- Father Charles A. Gaffigan, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1992 to 1994 at Holy Infancy in Lake Luzerne.
- Sister Marionella Graham, C.S.J., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1961 to 1962 at St. Joseph in Green Island.
- Sister Rosara Anne, C.S.J., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1963 to 1964 at St. Joseph in Green Island.
- Sister Giovanna Marie, C.S.J., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1964 to 1965 at St. Joseph in Green Island.
- Father Francis Hartigan, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1964 to 1969 at St. Ambrose in Latham and St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany.
- Father Francis Husselbeck, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1982 to 1985 at St. Agnes‐St. Patrick in Cohoes.
- Father Andrew J. Lenahan, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1960 to 1963 at Holy Family in Stottville.
- Sister Bernadette Marie, R.S.M., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1966 to 1967 at St. Teresa of Avila in Albany.
- Sister Mercedes Graber, R.S.M., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1978 to 1981 at Mercy High School in Albany.
- Father Gregory J. Mulhall, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1983 to 1984 at Church of the Annunciation in Ilion.
- Sister Eileen Patrice, C.S.J., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1961 to 1962 at St. Joseph in Schenectady.
- Father Guy Puglisi, accused of sexually abusing two minors at St. Teresa of Avila in Albany, one approximately 1974 to 1975 and the other approximately 1976.
- Father John J. Rooney, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1973 to 1974 at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Albany.
- Father Vincent J. Ciotoli, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1979 to 1983 at St. Patrick in Troy.
- Father Ignatius Rossi, O.F.M., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1957 to 1960 at St. Anthony of Padua in Troy.
- Father Anthony Sidoti, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1970 to 1971.
- Father Robert Taylor, accused of sexually abusing a minor in approximately 1981 at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Albany.
- Father Bernard Turner, accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1981 to 1982 at St. Patrick in Ravena.
- Sister Barbara Wood, R.S.M., accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1974 to 1978 at St. Patrick in Watervliet.
Five other complaints name two notorious Albany Diocese priests: Three against the Rev. Gary Mercure, who was sent to prison in 2011 for sex crimes, and two against the Rev. Dozia Wilson, who was accused of abuse in the Albany Diocese, the Boston Archdiocese, and Albany again as he was moved back and forth.