justice

Sexual Abuse Plaintiffs Fight Jesuit Efforts to Reveal Their Identities

The Loyola School on the Upper East Side, Sept. 11, 2019.
The Loyola School on the Upper East Side, Sept. 11, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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As hundreds of Child Victims Act lawsuits work their way through New York’s courts, defense lawyers for one Catholic religious order are pressing to expose the identities of plaintiffs who wish to remain anonymous.

Attorneys for the Northeast Province of the Jesuit Brothers have challenged plaintiffs’ anonymity in at least three cases in New York City — one involving the Loyola School in Manhattan and two at Fordham Preparatory School in The Bronx.

The three individuals are suing over “unpermitted sexual contact” they allege happened when they were under the age of 16.

Legal counsel for the Jesuits argued in court filings that the accusers’ anonymity violates the defendants’ constitutional right of due process, asserting: “The potential for public humiliation or embarrassment is not sufficient grounds for anonymity.”

An attorney for the Jesuits and a spokesperson for the Northeast Province of the Jesuits both declined to comment.

Jeff Anderson, the attorney for the plaintiffs suing the Jesuits, said that the majority of his firm’s 275 Child Victims Act cases so far rely on pseudonyms.

He calls anonymity in these cases “important and critical because each of these survivors are victims of crime,” adding: “This gives them the chance to have choices as plaintiffs and as litigants that they didn’t have as kids.”

The Case for John Doe

The state Child Victims Act, in effect since August 14, allows for a yearlong window for plaintiffs to file lawsuits about abuse that happened years in the past, in addition to significantly lengthening the statute of limitations on civil cases going forward.

Many of the cases are proceeding using initials, “Anonymous” or the name “John Doe,” with judges’ consent.

On Thursday morning, State Supreme Court Judge George Silver presided over a hearing regarding a lawyer’s request for anonymity in nine cases alleging abuse at St. Francis Prep, a Roman Catholic high school in Queens’ Fresh Meadows neighborhood.

Plaintiffs’ attorney David Oddo told THE CITY that some of his clients in those cases have lived suppressing painful memories for many years, confiding in no one.

The alleged abuses span from 1969 to 2004.

One anonymous plaintiff, then 14 years old, says a trusted coach molested them in the showers in the fall of 1969. Another says she was raped repeatedly from the age of 15 and forced by the perpetrator to have multiple abortions.

Ultimately, attorneys for St. Francis agreed to allow pseudonyms.

“I think they saw the wisdom in not fighting it,” Oddo said. “This is something that will prevent the victims from ridicule, scorn, harassment and I think that based upon what they’ve gone through, they should not be victimized a second time.”

‘Shady and Unfortunate’

Other lawyers representing clients alleging childhood sexual abuse dismissed the Jesuits’ pushback on pseudonyms as a strategic maneuver by defense attorneys to discourage claims.

Andrew Janet, who has a suit with an anonymous client against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, described opposition as a “shady and unfortunate tactic that they’re using to oppress victims of sexual abuse.”

He added that the plaintiffs’ identities would not ultimately be kept secret from the defense, but only barred from appearing on the court record or publicized.

“I think it’s designed for one purpose, for one purpose only; to chill those coming forwards to not pursuing their cases,” said Kevin Mulhearn, an attorney representing dozens of plaintiffs suing Yeshiva University’s High School for Boys.

“If there’s a risk of sex abuse victims being identified and having to face additional emotional problems because of that or some kind of backlash in their communities … then the law is clear that anonymity needs to be granted,” Mulhearn added.

Brian Toale, a victims’ advocate with national support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the defense’s strategy a “hurtful and self-serving move.”

“Not every survivor is ready to share the details of their abuse with their communities and they shouldn’t be prevented from coming forward and filing a lawsuit due to fear of being exposed by the very people who were responsible for the abuse they suffered in the first place,” Toale said.

“Victims of crime deserve to have their privacy and to be in charge of when and where they go public.”

Extending the Clock for Justice

As of Monday, 639 Child Victims Act lawsuits were filed across the state, more than a third of them in New York City courts. Of these, 152 cases are in Manhattan courts, while Brooklyn comes in second with 69 lawsuits, according to the Office of Court Administration.

OCA has designated 12 judges in New York City to hear Child Victims Act cases, said agency spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.

Several institutions are already standing out as repeat targets of claims. Seven cases have been filed so far against the Boy Scouts of America, nearly 90 claims against the Archdiocese of New York, and more than 60 against the Diocese of Brooklyn.

The Diocese of Rochester filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Thursday, following suits by more than 30 accusers. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs called the diocese’s move a legal tactic to prevent jury trials and deny victims from having their day in court.

“Now they are attempting to cut their survivors at their knees before their stories could be truthfully told,” said lawyer Jeff Boyd at a Thursday press conference.

Anderson, the lead attorney on many of the Brooklyn and Rochester suits, said that the Jesuits were the only religious order in his caseload aggressively challenging the privacy of victims.

“They stand alone. They are the only ones that are willing to do that,” Anderson added. “We are going to duke it out in court.”

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