By Matthew Lavietes
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than a thousand people are expected to file civil lawsuits in New York courts beginning on Wednesday over sexual abuse they say they suffered as children during a special one-year window for state suits over decades-old allegations.
New York courts have assigned 45 judges to handle cases under the Child Victims Act passed earlier this year. The law scraps, for one year, the statute of limitations that had barred older complaints and critics said was too restrictive. The law also put in place longer periods for criminal prosecutions and civil actions going forward.
Twelve of the judges assigned to the cases will be in New York City. The court system has provided training for judges and implemented rules to speed up the resolution of the lawsuits, which may result in money awards to victims.
"The revived Child Victims Act cases are critically important cases, raising numerous challenging legal issues, that must be adjudicated as consistently and expeditiously as possible," Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said in a statement.
One law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, said it would be filing 400 lawsuits just in New York City, with plaintiffs ranging from teenagers to people in their 90s.
A separate group of law firms, including Seeger Weiss, said it would be representing at least 170 plaintiffs across the state, many with complaints against the Roman Catholic Church.
"The institutions and the schools that have been covering this up for decades, it's over; it's now," Jonathan Sedgh, a lawyer at Weitz, said at a news conference in Manhattan on Tuesday. "Now we have the chance to bring them to justice."
His firm said more than 400 cases will be filed in the coming weeks against churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions across New York City. Statewide, the firm said it is representing more than 1,200 people who say they were sexually abused as children.
Sedgh said the defendants would include plaintiffs' relatives and neighbours, as well as members of the clergy.
Veronika Bakhrakh, 38, said she was repeatedly sexually abused by her former violin teacher, Ilya Lehman, when she was 10 years old. Her mother transferred her from the school and Bakhrakh put it behind her.
But earlier this year, she found out about Child Victims Act on social media and decided to contact the Weitz law firm.
"Only when you're an adult, you realize you should have said something, you should have stepped up, but you couldn’t," said Bakhrakh, a child psychologist.
Lehman, a once-renowned Manhattan music teacher, admitted to molesting a 9-year-old girl as a part of a plea deal in 2014. He served two years in state prison but has since been released.
The Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church in particular have braced themselves for litigation made possible by the relaxing of New York's statute of limitations, which had previously been among the most stringent in the country.
After the law was signed, both organizations encouraged victims to come forward, and law firms have run advertisements encouraging the same.
(Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman)