Child Victims Act in effect

Gov. Andrew Cuomo hugs a bystander Feb. 14 after signing the Child Victims Act in the newsroom of the Daily News. The law went into effect Wednesday, resulting in more than 100 lawsuits being filed in Western New York.

Ten minutes into Wednesday morning, filing was completed on Cattaraugus County Supreme Court’s first sex abuse suit allowed under New York’s new Child Victims Act.

Seventeen hours later, the associates at HoganWillig PLLC who filed that claim — plus an additional two-thirds of their 25 other cases — were tired.

“But it’s a good kind of tired,” said lawyer William Lorenz Jr., the firm’s CVA case coordinator. “This has been a long time coming for our clients and survivors all across New York state.”

Cattaraugus County saw only one Child Victims Act filing Wednesday from the state’s online unified court system database. But across the region, more than 100 poured into clerks’ offices and hundreds more came in around the state.

It was just the first day of a year-long “lookback window,” which allows victims of child sexual abuse to bring legal action agains their abusers, as well as public and private institutions who let the abuse happen.

The law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Feb. 14, also expanded the statute of limitations in sex abuse cases. Before, 23 was the oldest someone could be to file charges against an alleged abuser. Now, criminal charges can be filed by victims as old as 28, and civil cases can be filed by age 55.

“Child sexual abuse is a real epidemic. It’s been in the corners and in the shadows, but it is much more widespread than people want to admit,” Cuomo said. “The Child Victims Act says if you were sexually abused as a child, you have a right to justice and to make your case. Children have legal rights, and if you abuse a child, you’re going to have your day in court and you’re going to be called to answer for it.”

Lorenz, whose law firm has offices across Western New York, including in Ellicottville, said Wednesday was a culmination of six months worth of “carefully investigating” each of the dozens of claims they had received and picking the strongest to lead with.

They filed the Cattaraugus County suit after a woman came to them in February alleging she was raped at age 10 by her neighbor in Great Valley for roughly a year.

James Darts Jr., a resident of Zephyrhills, Fla., formerly of Great Valley, was named as a defendant in the suit.

The Times Herald was unable to reach Darts, as registered phone numbers for him were disconnected.

The suit alleges that in 1985 Darts began “grooming” the 10-year-old victim, a term used to define how sex abusers establish trust with people they intend to violate. Lorenz said Darts had access to her because he was friends with her older sibling.

The court filings then allege Darts repeatedly raped the girl and forced her to perform sex acts on him, all in various locations around her childhood home.

Filings state that in 1986, the child told her school counselor about the abuse. Lorenz declined to name the victim’s school district, as the institution is not a defendant in the case.

Shortly after her parents found out, they called the Salamanca Police and Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office to investigate her claims, filings state.

Lorenz said because the case is so old, details about how the Great Valley case was then handled by law enforcement are expected to be made plain during pre-trial discovery. He added the victim’s young age also hindered her ability to speak out.

“This certainly impacted our client for the rest of her life, which is why she has carried this burden with her and now has a chance hopefully for some justice and closure.”

Across Western New York, the majority of cases filed Wednesday were aimed at institutions, with an unsurprising focus on the Diocese of Buffalo.

Included in the wave of filings naming priests as sex abusers were at least three lawsuits against the Rev. Norbert Orsolits, who in 2018 admitted to the Buffalo News he had molested “probably dozens” of teenage boys.

A suit detailing allegations by Michael Whalen made during a press conference last year were filed Wednesday, in which he described Orsolits engaging in “unpermitted sexual contact” with Whalen when he was 14, between 1979 and 1981.

A different case alleges that in that same time period, Orsolits had sexual contact with a boy who was roughly 9 to 11 years old after the pair met at St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church in Orchard Park.

Yet another suit filed by an anonymous plaintiff alleges Orsolits in 1968 abused a 13- or 14-year-old who attended St. John the Evangelist in Buffalo.

Additionally, a suit was filed against the Diocese describing allegations against the Rev. Donald W. Becker, who served at St. Mark’s Church in Rushford in 1968. The priest is accused of having sexual contact with a boy who was 9 or 10 years old in the mid-1970s while Becker served in Buffalo.

Lorenz expects many more cases to come in the next year, a window he said isn’t as big as it seems. He encouraged survivors to step forward and talk to an attorney now if they are contemplating a lawsuit.

He added while plaintiffs still have to prove their cases, they no longer have to be silent.

“The doors to the courtroom are now open to them after having been slammed shut all these years,” he said.

(Contact City Editor Danielle Gamble at Follow her on Twitter, @OTHGamble)