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Alleged victims of child sexual abuse in New York get their long-awaited day in court

Aug 13, 2019

Credit freeimages.com/James Chan

Kevin Higley can't remember if it was the summer of 1987 or the summer of 1988, but he does know he was 14 years old and serving as an altar boy at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Scottsville.

He said a parish priest, Father Paul Cloonan, asked him to go with him to visit a nearby monastery.

"And in the car on the way back from the monastery, he asked me if I could help him with a medical issue," Higley said.

Cloonan, he said, told him the medical problem was awkward, but Higley agreed to help. After returning to the church, Higley said Cloonan asked to photograph him from behind as Higley faced the altar.  He said he was wearing a T-shirt from his high school swim team.

On the back on the shirt was printed a message that still haunts Higley. It read: "Pain is only temporary, but the glory lasts forever."

"I had no idea what the irony of that shirt was going to be in my life," he said.

After he took the picture at the altar, Higley said Cloonan invited him up to his room to address the medical concern he mentioned earlier.

"And he explained to me, whatever he did to me, I was to do to him in return. And so I agreed," Higley said. "I don't think I really want to go into all of the exact details about what happened, but the very last thing that happened is he took a picture of himself doing what he was doing to me; a selfie, with a Polaroid camera.  At that time, I realized that I had been completely duped."

Cloonan's name appears on a list, published by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester in 2012, of priests whose sexual abuse of minors was known or acknowledged.

Cloonan resigned from ministry in 1988 and died in 2015, according to diocese spokesperson Doug Mandelaro.

Mike Pfau, an attorney representing Higley, said he has another client who claims he was sexually abused by Cloonan in the 1950s.

"Obviously, by the time this priest had abused Kevin, he had, potentially, a 30-year history," Pfau speculated. "Just from Kevin's story, you can hear how he isolated a child, how he got a child away from home, how he groomed a child, and obviously abused and photographed a child."

Higley said he buried his story for years by trying to stay busy, and to this day, he said he has never told his parents what happened.  He said he didn't want to make them feel guilty that they could have somehow helped him.

"I go through three- to five-year cycles where I have really good years and everything comes crashing down again," he said. "I've had multiple careers I've lost over anxiety, depression ... I was a schoolteacher at one time; I was a tool and die maker at one time; I was a resort manager at one time. I've lost all those careers because of anxiety and diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder."

Higley felt ready to take legal action about 10 years ago, but the previous statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes in New York state had expired in his case.

That all changed early this year when the state Legislature passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act. The law creates a one-year window, starting Wednesday, which allows survivors to file civil lawsuits regardless of when they say their abuse took place.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who say they were sexually abused as children are expected to go to court this week to sue their alleged abusers and the institutions they say were responsible for protecting them.

"I'm looking forward to my story being told because I'm ready to let go of it," Higley said.  "I've been carrying it now for many, many years and I'm ready to put it behind me, and there was no way to put it behind me until now."

In the past several months, the Rochester diocese said it has received notice of more than 100 potential lawsuits from alleged abuse victims. Mandelaro said there is no way of knowing how many claims may be filed in the coming year.

Pfau said his firm, working with another law firm, is representing over 550 abuse survivors across New York state. They include allegations against not only Catholic priests, but also rabbis, coaches, Boy Scout leaders, and doctors.

Higley's lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages. It claims the Rochester diocese knew or should have known that he and other children were in danger. 

"I hope it brings attention to it," Higley said. "I hope it brings people to come forward; I hope it brings people to get help who need help, and I want parents to realize that their kids are vulnerable to some of the people that we tell them to trust the most."