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A proposed class action lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges that the Archdiocese of New York deceived victims of sexual abuse into taking smaller sums than they were entitled to from a compensation fund set up before a change in state law that expanded statutes of limitation for abuse claims.

The suit was filed on Feb. 14 in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, the same day that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act, which starting in August opens a one-year window for victims of sexual abuse to file claims regardless of their age.

Previously, victims could not bring criminal or civil claims against abusers after they turned 23 years old. Until the window opens, victims have until they turn 28 years old to bring criminal claims against their abusers, and 55 years old to bring civil claims.

Legislation to change the status quo stalled for years in the state Legislature and was met with opposition by Catholic dioceses in New York.

In 2016, the Archdiocese of New York established a fund to compensate abuses victims, hiring settlement specialists Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, known for their work on a fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as mediators to assess claims.

At the time, victims advocates criticized the fund as a way to make cases go away quickly before the legislature acted on proposals to raise the statutes of limitation on abuse claims.

Emmett Caldwell, 62, who alleged that a member of the clergy at St. Thomas the Apostle in Manhattan sexually abused him while he was in elementary school, says he filed a claim with the fund and was told that $75,000 was the most he could receive.

Caldwell did not know at the time that the Child Victims Act was percolating through Albany, said Jeff Herman of Herman Law, who represented Caldwell in the proposed class action.

Additionally, Herman said, the $75,000 was “pennies on the dollar” compared with what other victims have received for abuse claims, which can reach into seven figures.

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York archdiocese, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he and Biros said in a New York Daily News article that each claimant was advised by an attorney that claimants agreeing to cash settlements from the fund were waiving their rights to future claims.  

Herman argued his client’s waiver should be voided because Caldwell is an unsophisticated sexual-abuse victim who is “no match” for the Catholic Church, which, he said, exploited and “re-victimized” his client.

The archdiocese did connect Caldwell with an attorney, New York-based lawyer Dominique Penson, though his role was limited to “advising on matters related to language and meaning of [the] release only,” Penson wrote on a release that Caldwell signed accepting compensation from the fund and discharging the archdiocese and clergy members from future claims.

Penson did not respond to messages left with his office to request comment.

Herman said he is making no claims of attorney misconduct on the part of Penson, and that he “did what he was hired to do.” But Herman said Caldwell should have had an attorney charged with more than conveying the meaning behind the language contained in the release, such as reviewing the merits of his case and assessing for potential liability.

“The whole point of this language was to whitewash the process, to make it seem as if this was on the up and up,” Herman said.

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