On Monday 23 November 2020 the Attorney General of the US state of New York, Letita James, announced on Twitter that she had filed a lawsuit against Buffalo Catholic Diocese alleging its leaders had engaged in a cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in contravention of church policy and in violation of state law.
The lawsuit is the first state legal action against the Catholic Church in New York that is borne out of a recent wave of abuse investigations which began in 2018. It is the culmination of just one of the eight inquiries still ongoing with respect to each Catholic diocese in the state. The remaining seven inquiries could result in further legal actions.
The lawsuit represents a novel approach from prosecutors who are attempting to use civil laws which govern religious charities and their fiduciaries to sue a Catholic diocese for failing to follow church policies first enacted in 2002. The Catholic Church first adopted these policies after a series of investigative reports by The Boston Globe infamously thrust the sex abuse scandal into the national spotlight.
The suit included a 218 page report on the two year investigation into the diocese and concluded that although church leaders found sex abuse complaints to be credible, they still opted to protect the accused. In particular, the investigation found that the diocese and its two former top leaders, Bishop Richard J. Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz, utilized bureaucratic procedures to shelter more than two dozen priests that had been accused of harming children. Bishop Malone and his team would often classify priests accused of abusing children as “unassignable”, an administrative category within the church which allowed the priests to either retire or go on medical leave, whilst receiving benefits, in lieu of being referred to a Vatican investigation that could ban them from the priesthood. The maneuvering enabled the diocese to protect the accused priests within the organization and on its balance sheet. Diocese leadership also failed to properly supervise and monitor their priests according to the lawsuit.
In recent years, New York has increased its efforts to pursue justice for survivors of clergy sex abuse. New York lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in 2019 which had been languishing in the state legislature for 13 years as a result of pushback from the church and the millions it had invested into fighting the reform. The law extended the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse, allowing victims to file lawsuits against their abusers until age 55 and allowing criminal prosecutions until a victim turned 28.
Regular readers of our blog will note that reforming the statute of limitations in abuse cases has been a topic of much debate in the UK and other jurisdictions we have covered.
Bishop Malone resigned from his position in Buffalo last December after a Vatican investigation into his mishandling of the abuse crisis. Furthermore, the Buffalo diocese filed for bankruptcy protection in February of 2020, citing a deluge of lawsuits filed by people who said they were sexually abused by priests as children.
The Child Victims Act also created a one-year “look back window” that allowed claims that had already exceeded the previous statute of limitations to be revived. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Church in the days after the act was approved. Since then, three dioceses in addition to Buffalo have declared bankruptcy: Rochester, Syracuse and Rockville Centre on Long Island.
The Attorney General’s lawsuit represents a real sea change in the way New York approaches clergy sex abuse. They have advocated for the implementation of an independent review mechanism, external oversight, and mandatory reporting to the Attorney General for five years. In addition, the suit seeks to hold Bishops Malone and Grosz individually responsible. for violating nonprofit and estate powers and trusts laws.
Attacking the Catholic Church was previously perceived as politically dangerous by state bodies. In 2020, however, it is now gradually becoming a politically acceptable and normal to hold even the church accountable to wrongdoing.