An elite private school cannot automatically use N.Y. states’ statute of limitations to prevent a case involving sexual abuse allegations against a former football coach from proceeding, a judge ruled, because of the possibility that the school may have engaged in a scheme to cover up decades of abuse.
The lawsuit was brought against a private school by ten former students and two men, who while they were still underage, attended the school’s summer camp program. The plaintiffs allege that they were raped and molested by the former football coach from 1966 until 1991.
Since each plaintiff was a minor at the time of the alleged abuse, under N.Y. law they would each have three years from the time they turn 18 years of age to file the negligence claims, according to the decision.
Although the coach died in 1998, no criminal charges were ever brought against him.
The coach started working at the school in 1966. The first allegation against him came in 1966 by a student, the suit states. Accompanied by his parents, the student told the headmaster that the coach abused him on multiple occasions. The family was told that an investigation was conducted, that the student’s claims were not credible and that the student would face “severe consequences” if he continued to make such allegations, according to the ruling.
In 1991, the coach retired from the private school. A dinner was held to celebrate his retirement. When he died in 1998, the lawsuit says, the school established a memorial fund and solicited donations in his name. The plaintiffs argue that the school treated him as a respectable coach, fund-raising on his legacy, despite knowledge that he abused young boys at the institution for decades.
The plaintiff’s state that the school and several former and current administrators and directors concealed reports of the coach’s abuse for years to protect the school’s reputation and fund-raising. The school denied that it covered up allegations of abuse.
The plaintiffs argued that although the school fired the coach for misconduct, it lied to the school’s community about the true reason for his dismissal, as well as his career at the school.
In 2004 one alumnus filed a civil suit against the school over the sexual abuse. The case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had been exceeded.
In 2009, a larger group of alumni filed a new case, arguing that a cover-up by the private school regarding the abuse prevented the plaintiffs from filing suit in a timely fashion. They filed federal racketeering charges, including mail and wire fraud.
Two of the plaintiffs made financial contributions to the school in order to be considered victims of the school’s alleged scheme to defraud the community through deception about the coach’s legacy. Those contributions totaled $2,500.
Because of the decades-long attempt to conceal the school’s knowledge of the coach’s behavior, the two RICO charges were allowed to move forward. It appears to be the first time a federal court has allowed a civil racketeering claim to go forward in a sex abuse case.
The judge dismissed all racketeering claims against current and former board and administration members. In his 40-page ruling, he allowed civil charges, including fraud and violations of Title IX, which specifically prohibits sexual abuse, to move forward to a hearing.
However, there are “several hurdles” to face. The judge ordered each plaintiff to prove that statements about the coach’s “lily-white reputation were false and made with knowledge of their falsity.” Although the statute of limitations has been exceeded, each plaintiff will have to show that they relied on the school’s misrepresentations and that once they had learned about the school’s alleged deceit, the plaintiffs acted promptly to bring about a case.
If the judge finds the school knew about and concealed the abuse allegations during the statute of limitations period, the school would be precluded from arguing that those claims are time-barred.
Although the school believes that the remaining claims will be dismissed following the hearing, the school is actively pursuing a settlement and remains hopeful that one will be reached to avoid further litigation.
The judge scheduled a September 14th court appearance to set a date for an evidentiary hearing on whether the school concealed critical knowledge of the alleged abuse during the statute of limitations period.
This case is being closely watched, as allegations of sexual abuse and the way in which powerful institutions, such as Penn State University, manage knowledge of such allegations.
Hopefully, the ruling will prove that there is justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The children are entrusted in the school’s care and it is expected they be protected not violated.
For more information, contact a Gacovino & Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).