The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester will face a potentially massive flood of lawsuits next month when New York’s child sexual abuse reporting reforms go into effect, as the local fallout continues from decades of abuse and cover-ups by priests and others in the Catholic community nationwide.
According to Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, dozens of victims claiming abuse by clergy members in the Diocese of Rochester have come to him over the last several months to inquire about filing lawsuits. In mid-August, when a state-created window for childhood sexual abuse opens for one year, Garabedian said he will bring lawsuits on behalf of 75 victims against the diocese, with more likely in the following months once more people become aware of the new statute. Garabedian said he expects a second wave of lawsuits to come, and maybe more after that. He has been handling sexual abuse cases for decades, rising to prominence when the Catholic priest abuse scandal was revealed in Boston, in which he was deeply involved in representing victims and their families against the Catholic Church. (Garabedian was portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the 2015 movie “Spotlight” about the uncovering of the scandal.)
Of his 75 cases, Garabedian said none are from Ithaca or Tompkins County; many are from Rochester and Owego, and stretch as far as Elmira and Van Etten. The diocese holds 90 total parishes, seven of which are in Tompkins County and two of which, Immaculate Conception and St. Catherine of Siena, are in Ithaca. He said the range of victims’ ages at the time of abuse were 4-20 years old, and that their ages now are between mid-30s and late 70s. Of the victims, 70 are men and five are women, and their claims come from between the 1950s to 1993.
“I am only one lawyer, and I represent 75 victims,” Garabedian said. “Since there are going to be other lawyers filing lawsuits too, you’re going to see many more cases within the Diocese of Rochester filed. The Diocese of Rochester has as many sexual abusive priests in its ranks as is to be expected. It’s typical, it’s not unusual, and they should be ashamed.”
Previous work by Garabedian, along with reports in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, show that last summer the Diocese of Rochester admitted to paying out over $1 million in settlement money to clergy abuse victims. Ithaca has already seen two priests accused of abuse this year: Rev. Carsten Martensen, who worked as a chaplain at Ithaca College and Cornell University, was suspended from those duties in March after the Diocese of Rochester notified the schools that he was under investigation for abuse; additionally, reports in the Democrat & Chronicle from earlier this year showed that the diocese settled an abuse claim against Rev. Bernard Carges, who worked for over 20 years at Immaculate Conception, for $125,000.
The new wave of lawsuits is the result of the newly-signed Child Victims Act, which was pushed by state Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, among others, and signed into law in January. The legislation reformed statutes around child sexual abuse claims, which had previously banned victims from seeking civil prosecution of their abusers after the age of 23. The CVA raised that age limit to 55 years old now, and in criminal cases abusers can seek prosecution until the age of 28. More central to this new surge in suits, though, is a year-long window that will open on Aug. 14 during which victims of all ages, and regardless of time since the crime, may come forward to seek civil or criminal prosecution against their abusers.
To handle what promises to be a drastic influx of suits, Garabedian said he predicts that there will be some unique structuring of the suits so that depositions don’t have to be repeated with each new case, and that the lawsuits may be grouped together in some manner for efficiency.
Unlike some other Catholic dioceses around the state, the Diocese of Rochester has not recently published its own list of credibly accused priests. They instead published a list in 2012 of 22 priests that the diocese said had been investigated and either removed from the priesthood entirely or from public ministry. That drew criticism from Garabedian and other survivor support community members, who said not releasing the names is a further act of covering up the scandal’s breadth and local impact. A spokesperson for the diocese said they had not received a “contemporary allegation of sexual abuse of a minor since 2006,” which if true would explain why the list has not grown since its 2012 publication.
If there is an updated list of sexually abusive priests, Garabedian said, it is “irresponsible” for the Diocese of Rochester not to publish a current and comprehensive list of their names.
Peter Saracino, of Geneva, NY, and Robert Hoatson, from Road to Recovery, who were both abused as children and have subsequently become advocates for abuse survivors, echoed Garabedian’s sentiment. They said they thought the way forward was for .
“It’s a profound betrayal of children, Catholic families and there’s a disappointment in the Catholic laity for not demanding accountability and transparency,” Saracino said.