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N.Y. suspended its statute of limitations on child sex abuse. A flood of claims emerged

People who were sexually abused as children often need years to process what they’ve endured. By then, it’s often too late to take legal action against those responsible. But New York and a dozen other states are exploring changing the statutes of limitations. Lisa Desjardins reports and talks to Gail Coleman, a plaintiff in one of the New York sex abuse cases, and her attorney, Jennifer Freeman.

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  • William Brangham:

    People who have been sexually abused as children often find it takes years to come to grips with what they have endured.

    By then, more often than not, they're blocked from taking legal action against those responsible because of state laws that limit the time when such lawsuits can be filed.

    But, as Lisa Desjardins reports, just last week, New York became the latest of more than a dozen states to change those limits.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    New York state's new law is particularly sweeping. Now individuals can file civil lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse until they are 55 years old. The limit had been 23.

    It also allows anyone of any age one year to file a case from the past in a so-called look-back window. This allows for a flood of lawsuits, including against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and, in the case we will discuss tonight, Rockefeller University in Manhattan.

    This year, the school acknowledged the late Dr. Reginald Archibald sexually abused children in his care at the university's hospital, touching and fondling them for no medical reason. He often took photos of them naked.

    The number of children abused is potentially in the thousands. Archibald worked in pediatrics for four decades, starting in 1940. He died in 2007.

    Jennifer Freeman is an attorney with the Marsh Law Firm, which is representing some 550 plaintiffs in these new lawsuits.

    One of those plaintiffs is Gail Coleman, who saw Dr. Archibald several times as a child, starting in 1974, at age 11.

    Thank you, ladies.

    Jennifer, let me just start with you.

    This is a historic law. What is the potential scope of this? And what could this mean for abuse survivors?

  • Jennifer Freeman:

    This truly is landmark legislation.

    And it means that anyone at any age can truly come forward in this special look-back window and get their child sex abuse claims addressed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What happens to them, though? They still must go through the traditional procedure, is that right? The steps will go through court.

  • Jennifer Freeman:

    That's absolutely right. You still have to prove your case, no matter what. And that involves telling your story. That involves getting documents, such as, with the Catholic Church, the secret file, or the Boy Scouts, the ineligible files, and the documents that Rockefeller University has already identified.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Gail, what does this mean for you, this opportunity?

  • Gail Coleman:

    This means that finally I can hold Rockefeller University accountable for its role in what happened to me.

    They left me alone with a pedophile. And even their own investigators have found that people complained to them years before I walked through that door. And they made a choice. They chose to protect Archibald, instead of protecting me and the thousands of other children that he molested. And there need to be consequences for that choice.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There was even a grand jury case in 1960 against Dr. Archibald, and the university knew about it, still dismissed it.

    One thing I notice about your lawsuit, some of these plaintiffs prefer not to be named and used initials instead. But you were named. And here you are in public.

    Why was it important for you to be fully named and public about this?

  • Gail Coleman:

    I think it important for survivors to come forward.

    So often, we don't because we feel shame. But we're the victims. We didn't — we don't have anything to be ashamed about. The shame really belongs with the people who molested us and with the institutions who let it happen.

    And I think, the more that people talk about it, the more clear it becomes what the scope is. And that's how we start protecting children in the future.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And it takes so much to talk about. I am really especially interested in this case, because I done think if has gotten a lot of national attention.

    In New York, of course, it has made a lot of headlines. But I'm curious, what do you think people should know about Dr. Archibald? You called a monster when we were talking just before we started.

  • Gail Coleman:

    He was a monster.

    He abused the fact that we, that I — I was a child. I was 11 years old. And he was a doctor. And he was a well-respected doctor. And as a child especially, it is very hard. When a doctor is holding out what he is doing as for medical purposes, it is hard to believe that it is not true, even if it doesn't feel right.

    He abused his position.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He left children often alone, while telling parent there was someone else with you, and apparently lied to the parents as well and the university.

    But the university did have some knowledge. He has now passed away. He's long since dead. What do you want to happen here? What do you hope these lawsuits do?

  • Gail Coleman:

    I hope that these lawsuits will hold Rockefeller University accountable. And I hope they do it in a way that is so consequential that other institutions are going to have to take notice and are going to have to make sure that they have policies and procedures in place to make sure that this doesn't happen to any other child on their watch.

    The other thing that I want from this lawsuit is, he took pictures of me. And I want to find out what happened to them. Are they still out there? Who has seen them? And are the negatives still out there? If they are, I want them back. I just don't know.

    And the fact that they may still be out there, that is an ongoing revictimization for me. It means this isn't just in the past, when I was a child. It is still happening to me.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And this is the case for hundreds, thousands of people that he saw.

    As we talk about what difference this could make for children in the future, what kind of message this sends, Jennifer, this is a man who passed away. Some of these institutions are facing possible bankruptcy because of just the amount of lawsuits.

    Their — the insurers are worried about being able to pay all these claims. What do you think this does? How does this protect children, these lawsuits?

  • Jennifer Freeman:

    This will, as Gail said, encourage or require the institutions to protect children, to make sure that they are not alone with a child, to make sure that background checks are properly made, to make sure that procedures are followed, and also make sure that people are just aware that these things can happen.

    In any — unfortunately, in any youth-serving organization, there has to be attention to this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The idea is that, ultimately, the financial consequences could be so enormous, that all the institutions need to take notice of this problem.

  • Jennifer Freeman:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I have a bigger question about power. In all of these cases, we have seen institutions that have been venerated, authority figures who are also venerated use that power to prey on children or to cover up people who have preyed on children.

    How does this get at that culturally? Do you have hopes that there could be cultural changes from this as well, Gail?

  • Gail Coleman:

    I do.

    I think that the more people who come forward and the more clear it becomes how broad the scope of child abuse is, child sexual abuse, hopefully, as society loudly condemns it, even children will feel more comfortable coming forward, and they will feel that they will be believed.

    And, as I said, the shame, the embarrassment is profound, but, hopefully, that will become less.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Has it started to become less with this process? I know you are just a few days into this. But how is it feeling even this week?

    This is something you probably didn't imagine could happen.

  • Gail Coleman:

    Well, that's right. It has been very helpful that, through this process, I have met other survivors. It's been very helpful to talk to them.

    And the other thing is, the more we are learning about Rockefeller and what they knew and how early they knew it, I am just becoming angrier and angrier.

  • Jennifer Freeman:

    It is true that, if they had done the right thing as of 1960-'61, when the grand jury investigation was going on — they had a grand jury subpoena.

    They should have taken notice. If they had done that, approximately 90 percent of these victimizations would not have happened.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jennifer Freeman, Gail, I have to thank you both so much. It's a very important conversation. Thank you for keeping it on the national radar.

  • Gail Coleman:

    Thank you.

  • Jennifer Freeman:

    Thank you very much for listening.

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