Woman Accuses NY Priest of Rape, Kicking Off Dozens of New Clergy Sex-Abuse Lawsuits

By olivia.messer@thedailybeast.com (Olivia Messer)
Spencer Platt

A New York woman who has waited decades to publicly accuse a Catholic priest of rape kicked off more than 100 lawsuits filed Wednesday after a new state law opened a one-year window for sexual-abuse survivors to seek justice.

The 36-year-old, identified by the pseudonym Jane Doe, filed suit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, claiming abuse by Father Ricardo Fajardo when she was a minor and he was working as a priest at the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa in Manhattan.

Doe’s suit, filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, alleges that she was raped by Fajardo, who “used his position as a dignified religious leader to ingratiate himself with [Doe’s] family as a trusted and respected individual.”

After volunteering to give her a ride home one day, Fajardo instead allegedly drove Doe back to the church rectory and invited her to lay in his bed. Then he gave her alcohol, groped and kissed her, and then raped her, according to the lawsuit.

Doe’s case is one of more than 100 lawsuits that were filed so far on Wednesday in 11 counties, mostly targeting Catholic dioceses in New York, by survivors of child sex abuse.

The suits were enabled by the state’s Child Victims Act, which passed in January and went into full effect at midnight Wednesday. The law removes the state’s statute of limitations on sex crimes against children and provides a one-year window, beginning Wednesday, to pursue legal action—no matter the age of the accuser, when the abuse occurred, or if the alleged perpetrator is alive or dead.

In addition to the new window, as of Wednesday, criminal charges can be filed against sexual abusers of children until accusers turn 28—up from age 23—in felony cases, and civil cases can be filed against abusers and institutions until the person making the claim turns 55.  

More than 1,000 lawsuits took advantage of a similar one-year window in California in 2003, The New York Times reported.

Attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel told The Daily Beast that her legal team represents more than 170 sexual-abuse survivors in New York and plans to file at least 15 clergy sex-abuse cases on Wednesday against Catholic Church dioceses in Manhattan, Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester, and Syracuse.

“These are just a few of the hundreds of cases we plan to file in the coming month,” said Simpson Tuegel in a Wednesday morning teleconference.

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York, in advance of Wednesday, sued its insurance providers to ensure they would be covered during the onslaught of legal cases.

The Catholic Church Shakes as Sex Victims Act Opens Window of Justice

“On a personal level, it’s been challenging for me to name my abuser and relive the abuse,” Doe told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “In the end, I am hopeful that the justice system will prevail for me—and every survivor who has been silenced for far too long.”

“Today is an important and emotional day,” she added. “I’m proud to be a part of this movement to hold abusers accountable in a court of law and thankful for the opportunity created by the Child Victims Act.”

Doe’s lawsuit claims negligence, vicarious liability, gross negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and fraudulent concealment.

The woman “suffered and will continue to suffer great, permanent harm, including but not limited to severe emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, and loss of self-esteem,” the complaint claims. “Her religious faith, together with its fellowship and other benefits, has been destroyed.”

What’s worse, the lawsuit alleges the archdiocese had “actual or constructive knowledge” of Fajardo’s “propensity to sexually assault minors, and instead of stopping or preventing abuse, attempted to cover it up.”

“New York Archdiocese held itself out to be safe places for religious worship, spiritual development and growth, learning and education, or engaging in youth and/or community activities,” and, as a result, “owed a duty of care to all minor persons, including [Doe], who were likely to come within the influence or supervision of Father Fajardo, in his role as teacher, priest, counselor, trustee, director, officer, employee, agent, servant and/or volunteer,” the lawsuit claims.

New York Archdiocese allegedly failed Doe by “minimizing, ignoring or excusing priestly misconduct over a period of decades,” declining “to provide a safe environment to children and other parishioners within the churches,” and refusing “to investigate complaints of abuse properly.”

The archdiocese, the lawsuit claims, “engaged in a conscious, deliberate plan to conceal the abuse” and attacked Doe’s credibility and impeded her from pursuing legal action against the church.

Doe is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, including medical expenses related to the alleged abuse, and past and future lost wages. She is demanding a jury trial.

Another suit aimed at the Archdiocese of New York, which is the nation’s second largest after Los Angeles, alleges rampant sexual abuse of children at the Mount Loretto homeless shelter in Staten Island starting in the '60s and spanning decades, the New York Post reported. A plaintiff in that case said several nuns surrounded her at the shelter, told her to strip, then watched a boy sexually abuse her.

The plaintiff alleged that “four or five nuns” stood around her and laughed.

The Archdiocese of New York has already paid out $65 million to 323 victims through a compensation fund set up in 2016, but recipients of those funds waived their right to file lawsuits.

“Today is a historic day for survivors of sexual abuse in New York, and I have the utmost respect for every courageous survivor that begins their journey to justice today,” Doe’s attorney, Simpson Tuegel said. 

“It is my hope that each survivor, whether they were abused by a member of the clergy, Boy Scout leader, or any other organization, receives some measure of closure from this process,” Simpson Tuegel added.

Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, said it “has been anticipating the filing of lawsuits since the Child Victim’s Act passed earlier this year.”

“While we carefully review the claims made in these suits, we ask that people pray for peace and healing for all those who have suffered from the sin and crime of the sexual abuse of minors, wherever it occurred, particularly victim-survivors and their families,” said Zwilling.

Fajardo—who is currently serving as pastor at the Church of the Holy Spirit in the Bronx, according to its website—did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday morning from The Daily Beast. He is one of several New York priests who were publicly accused for the first time on Wednesday.

“Today is the beginning of accountability for the Catholic Church and other institutions that have turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse in the state of New York. Survivors will no longer be silenced,” said lawyer Stephen Weiss, who, along with Simpson Tuegel, represents Doe and the 14 other plaintiffs.

“Although the pain and suffering survivors endure will never go away, we hope to achieve some measure of closure for those who have been denied justice for far too long,” Weiss added.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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