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Survivors of child sexual abuse plan to file lawsuits August 14

New York Now


Beginning August 14, New Yorkers who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse will have a one year window of opportunity to file civil suits against their abusers, under the terms of the Child Victims Act passed by the legislature earlier this year. Thousands of cases are expected to be filed, with payouts potentially in the millions. 

Gordon Smith was 14 years old when he says he was first abused by two priests at a St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and school in Albany in the early 1960s.

He was filling in as a janitor for his father, who was sick. He said the abuse continued, on a weekly basis, for three years.

“It was about as horrific as it could get,” said Smith, in an interview with public radio and TV . “We’re talking about molestation, we’re talking about sodomization, we’re talking about oral sex.”

One of the priests that Smith is accusing, Father Donald Starks, appears on a list kept by the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese of priests with “credible” accusations against them. Starks died in 1989.

He says the priests threatened him.

“They told me, if I ever said a word, first of all no one would believe me,” Smith said. “Then they also said that they would make sure my father never worked again and would ruin my family.”

Smith found himself in a position no child should be in, protecting his own father from the situation. He said his dad, a World War II veteran, kept guns in the house.

“I knew that if he found out there was going to be problem,” Smith said. “Because he would use one of the guns and go after him”.

For decades he told no one. Smith drank for years, until he says he got married and straightened out. He first sought help in 2005, and asked the church to pay for his therapy. They paid for one session, then called and said they did not believe him.   

Smith said he left the Catholic Church, and no longer believes in God.

“When you are being abused and the crucifix hangs on the wall, and as a child you are looking at it and saying ‘why are you letting this happen?’, and it continues,” said Smith. “You come to believe that there is no God to help you. There is no help.”

Smith, who now lives in Cohoes and works in the financial services industry, is preparing to file his lawsuit against the church on August 14. Under the previous statute of limitation laws he would have had to file charges when he was in his 20s. Under the one year window in the new law, anyone who was abused can initiate civil court action.

Smith’s attorney, Jennifer Freeman, said The Marsh Law Firm, where she is a senior counsel, has 515 cases lined up and ready to be filed in civil courts in New York on August 14.

“This is landmark legislation,” said Freeman, who said New York went from being one of the worst states in which to seek recourse for childhood sexual abuse, to being one of the best.

The Catholic Church in New York for years lobbied against the Child Victims Act, but dropped its opposition earlier this year. The Diocese is not disputing or fighting any of the accusations.

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, with the Albany Diocese, in a videotaped message about the upcoming civil cases, says he supports the victims in seeking “justice and healing.”

“There’s no place in our family of faith for abusers to act out, regardless of their status, or to hide from their crimes,” said Scharfenberger. “Nor should anyone fear calling them out, past or present”.

Smith said he wants himself and other survivors to be heard.

“If there’s one person sitting out there who sees my story and hears me, and says ‘hey that was my situation too’, and goes forward and talks to a doctor or talks to a therapist and gets help”, said Smith who said –that’s more important than any court case.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.