BUFFALO, N.Y. — After traveling 300 miles by train to Albany, Michael Whelan, a Catholic survivor of sex abuse, witnessed the passage of the Child Victims Act in the state Legislature. Four decades had passed since a Buffalo priest preyed on him as a 13-year-old, taking away his childhood and altering his future forever.
“For us victims, I cried. I absolutely cried. I felt the relief they absolutely heard us,” he said. As he traveled back toward Buffalo by train, Whelan told the Register the sexual abuse he received during a skiing trip cost him many things: a happy first marriage, normal family life and a promising military career, as the trauma kept resurfacing through the years.
“It has been a slow, hard fight,” Whelan said.
The Child Victims Act was enacted Jan. 28 by nearly unanimous margins in New York’s senate and assembly and is expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The legislation allows adult victims of child sexual abuse to bring civil charges against their abusers, whether secular or faith-based, up until their 55th birthdays.
The law also creates a one-year window for all victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits against their sexual predators and against institutions that harbored them.
“We pray that the passage of the Child Victims Act brings some measure of healing to all survivors by offering them a path of recourse and reconciliation,” said New York’s Catholic bishops in a Jan. 28 statement.
Whelan’s alleged abuser, Father Norbert Orsolits, is a retired priest from the Diocese of Buffalo, and while he did not remember Whelan, the priest admitted he abused probably dozens of boys in the 1970s and 1980s on similar trips. The crimes are outside the criminal statute of limitations in New York.
While he is “ready to forgive his abuser,” Whelan said justice must also be done. He and other survivors have no other option than to take the priest and diocese to court under the new law’s provisions and let a jury decide after telling their stories.
“This gives the opportunity for me and other victims to get some form of justice,” he said.
The Child Victims Act moved ahead when the New York state Catholic bishops dropped their opposition after it was amended to hold public entities equally accountable as private entities under the law.
Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, told the Register the bishops were concerned in the past both about the impact of a retroactive window for lawsuits on the Church’s “educational, charitable and sacramental ministries” and that public schools could shield themselves from these lawsuits, effectively creating two sets of victims.
“This year, for the first time, we said we would drop our opposition to the window concept entirely if public-school survivors were given the same access to the courts,” he said. Once the bill’s sponsors made “explicit” that public institutions would be included, “We removed our opposition that very evening.”
Poust said the Church is committed to abolishing the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse and strengthening provisions to help heal survivors and prevent new victims throughout society.
Since 2016, New York’s Catholic dioceses have attempted to provide compensation for childhood sexual-abuse victims in exchange for forgoing future litigation. In the Archdiocese of New York alone, more than 1,000 childhood sexual-abuse victims received compensation — up to now their only option to gain compensation for time-barred claims.
Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney prominently featured in the movie Spotlight, which profiled the investigative reporting by The Boston Globe that triggered the national clergy-abuse scandal in 2002, and who is representing sexual-abuse victims in New York state, told the Register that he expected the Child Victims Act will provide victims justice and Catholics a window into the “widespread and extensive” phenomenon of sexual abuse and the role of the Church’s present governance.
“It is very important that victims, of whatever age, have the opportunity to gain justice and seek the truth,” he said.
Unlike the compensation funds, civil action will compel alleged sexual abusers and their supervisors to testify under oath and give survivors access to supporting documentation from the dioceses’ own files.
He explained that judges may or may not choose to keep information confidential until the time of trial. Once the trial is complete, Garabedian said, the media will be able to access court records and give the public and particularly Catholics a full account of how a number of priests and their supervisors, including bishops, showed themselves to be “just a bunch of criminals.”
Martin Nussbaum, an attorney who has represented diocesan entities in civil litigation, maintains that child sexual abuse has declined sharply since peaking in the 1960s and 1970s and that the Church’s Dallas Charter has been working overall.
“The Catholic Church’s effort to address the historic problem of sexual abuse has been remarkably successful,” Nussbaum told the Register.
Nussbaum added that New York’s bill finally recognizes that victims of sexual abuse have to be treated equally, no matter if their abuse took place in a private or public institution.
“There’s a huge amount of sexual abuse taking place in public entities,” he said.
The Associated Press reported more than 17,000 official sex-abuse complaints filed at public schools attended by 50 million K-12 students in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015.
Nussbaum said New York’s bill did not make any appropriations for public entities facing lawsuits under the retroactive statute-of-limitations window. Nussbaum said he expected a number of public-school districts would be forced to file for bankruptcy protection.
He said that state laws that open up a window for time-barred claims have led to dioceses seeking bankruptcy protection in about half the cases.
The one benefit for Church entities filing for bankruptcy, Nussbaum explained, is that the reorganization plans approved by the court trustee generally bar any new litigation on past abuse. Generally, these plans have set up a fund for future claimants not covered in the bankruptcy settlement and allow Church entities to move forward.
“It does allow for a new chapter to begin,” he said.
Catholic sex-abuse survivors like Whelan, however, are determined to help the Catholic Church heal from the sex-abuse crisis. The Church’s leaders need to embrace transparency, Whalen said, but, more importantly, they need to go back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “read those teachings and hear them again.”
“I never lost my Catholic faith,” he said. “It’s a beautiful religion, and we need to get back to the fundamentals.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.