A new law came into force in New York State yesterday that is threatening to bring an avalanche of new child abuse claims down on the Catholic Church.
In Germany, as abuse cases flooded around the Church in 2010, it spoke of a “tsunami”. Millions have left the Church in disgust since then.
In Australia and Ireland, the Church is still reeling from the revelations of how children were treated there, and how the Church sought to hide its culpability. The hierarchies are attempting to chart a path to recovery, but despite all the evident service and self-sacrifice on the part of so many ordinary priests, the Church is held in such low public esteem that the mountain they have to climb is more than daunting.
In the United States, the Church has used its vast wealth to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to thousands of victims. But if the Church there thought the reckoning was over, it was profoundly mistaken, as events in New York on Wednesday showed.
The New York law, the Child Victims Act, was approved by the state’s Senate and Assembly in January this year, with every senator voting for the bill, and the Assembly passing it with a majority of 130 to 3. It has now come into force.
Victims of sexual abuse in New York were previously required to file civil lawsuits by their 23rd birthdays. Under the new law, they have until age 55, and for one year, as from Wednesday 14 August - they can be even older than that.
Crucially, by giving plaintiffs the power to subpoena private institutional records, the thousands of lawsuits expected to be filed this year could open a window into how institutions including the Vatican handled the abusers and the abuse claims, casting a searing light on any attempts at cover-up.
By the end of Wednesday 427 lawsuits had been filed across the state. Some were against institutions including the Boy Scouts, but most were against the Catholic Church and its dioceses in New York state.
One plaintiff speaking to the press on Wednesday was James Grein, 61. Grein told how disgraced ex-cardinal Thedore McCarrick took him to see St Pope John Paul II in 1988.
McCarrick was removed from the clerical state in February after being found guilty of sexually abusing children and adults.
According to Mr Grein, McCarrick, in 1988 the archbishop of Newark, left the room, leaving him to speak to the Pope. Grein said he knelt before the Pope and revealed, in the presence of several Vatican officials, that then archbishop McCarrick had been sexually abusing him since childhood.
“I told him I had been abused as a child by this man, and I need you to stop it,” said Grein. “He put both hands on my head, and told me he would pray for me.”
Because his lawsuit claims that he told Pope John Paul II about the abuse, Grein’s legal team will seek to depose Vatican officials and gain access to secret Vatican documents.
“The cover-up has ended and now we are going right to the top,” Mitchell Garabedian, Grein’s lawyer, told reporters on Wednesday in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. “We are attempting to show that the Vatican knew that McCarrick was abusing James Grein.”
The Catholic Archdiocese of New York said in a statement on Wednesday that it had anticipated facing new lawsuits with the change in the law. It said it would continue to “invite people to consider” a compensation programme created in 2016 for people sexually abused by its clergy. So far, the archdiocese has paid more than $66 million in compensation to 335 victims. The payments are funded by loans secured against its many valuable properties.