PLATTSBURGH — The day M.G. turned 23, he lost the chance to sue his childhood abuser. Now, nearly three decades later, the Child Victims Act has returned his voice.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the legislation earlier this year, loosening up some state regulations surrounding child sexual abuse claims.
A key piece of the act was its one-year revival period, which beginning in mid-August temporarily lifted New York’s statute of limitations on such cases, allowing victims of any age to step forward.
Since then, hundreds have filed cases statewide with many against Catholic clergymen and their institutions.
M.G., 54, was one of those plaintiffs.
In his lawsuit against what was once St. John’s Church and Academy in the city of Plattsburgh, as well as the Diocese of Ogdensburg, M.G. is suing for negligence, no apportionment of liability and outrage and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
M.G. said he had been sexually abused in his mid-teens by former St. John’s priest Father Thomas Squires, who is named in the suit, and, with the state’s updated legislation, the 54-year-old said he was ready to face what his 14-year-old self couldn’t.
“You’ve got the benefit of years of being bruised by life,” M.G. said. “I’m about to tell people and share a very personal story, because I think it’s important to get it out there.
“If my little story can help other people be brave, I think that’s a small risk for me to take on behalf of others who are feeling that shame and guilt and anger in their life around this.”
M.G., who now lives in Connecticut, said he had been born into a family of devout Catholics in upstate New York.
Not only were his parents active parishioners at St. John’s in the city of Plattsburgh, they also worked in marriage encountering, offering faith-based counseling to couples.
“There was a very, very high degree of trust between my family and the church,” he said. “That was really the framework with which I grew up — that framework of trust, of respect.”
And M.G. said his mother’s multiple sclerosis, or MS, had a role in his story, too.
“With my mom’s illness, sometimes mom couldn’t make mass on Sunday,” he said. “If she couldn’t make it to the church, a priest was coming to the house.
“One of those priests was Father Thomas Squires.”
M.G. said his first encounter with Squires was during altar-boy training when he was about 11 years old.
“He used my mom’s illness as a way to talk to me, to find out how I was feeling,” M.G. said.
As the “big brother” at home, M.G. said he had a lot of household responsibilities and relished the opportunity to talk.
“There became this relationship that, ultimately, Father Squires could exploit,” he said. “It’s a very dirty, disgusting way to make your way into someone’s life, but that’s what he did.
“He preyed on me, because of that circumstance.”
M.G. said his interactions with Squires slowly turned sour, starting with “weird” or “awkward” signs of affection.
“Inappropriate affection that made me uncomfortable,” he explained. “As I got older and older, it started to become more private time in the rectory.”
By the time M.G. was about 15 years old, the priest had also taken him on various overnight trips, like camping.
And, M.G. said, those outings had positioned Squires to take the teen on a trip to Florida.
“It was on that trip that the inappropriate interactions escalated,” M.G. said. “It was, what I would call, the starting point of the physical abuse.”
That abuse continued for about two years, he said.
“I did everything I could after that trip to minimize my exposure, to minimize my contact and to stay away from Father Squires as much as I could,” M.G. said.
“It was really difficult.”
Adding to the challenge was his family’s faith.
“I couldn’t go to my parents with this,” M.G. said. “Would they believe me against an institution they trusted so much?
“It just made me carry this shame of knowing that something had been done that was really wrong and not knowing what to do about it.”
And even as a 54-year-old dad of three, M.G. said he had kept the story from his parents and his kids.
“It has been a lot of years of it periodically rearing its head and making it hard for me to trust in relationships,” he said. “Or watching my own kids grow up and being very protective of them.”
In the mid-2000s, M.G. decided to report the childhood abuse and called the Diocese of Ogdensburg.
After some time, he received mail from the state’s Catholic diocese Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, asking him to provide a detailed account of his experience.
“When it happened, how it happened, where it happened, how frequently it happened — I had to relive this,” M.G. said. “It agitated all of this for me.
“Two months later, I got a reply back from them offering money,” he continued. “I said to myself, ‘Gee. This feels pretty crappy.’
“There’s the word, ‘reconciliation,’ and no one reached out to me to talk to me about it.”
And so, he wrote a letter telling that to the church.
“Their reaction was to offer me more money,” he said. “I thought, ‘I need something more. This is not about money.’”
According to M.G.’s attorney, Michael Pfau, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program had been about money.
Pfau, from a Seattle-based law firm specializing in child sexual abuse cases, said the church had tried to lessen its number of future lawsuits.
“Before the (Child Victims Act) changed, the Catholic diocese started reaching out to people who had called them for decades about their being abused,” Pfau said.
“They, essentially, tried to settle their cases before the law passed.”
The Diocese of Ogdensburg said it was unable to comment on any active lawsuits.
Director of the Office of Public Information Deacon James Crowley said Bishop Terry R. LaValley had been a supporter of the New York State Child Victim’s Act.
“Whatever we can do for the healing of the victims,” Crowley said of the diocese, “that is really our main goal.”
When M.G. heard about the act’s one-year revival period, he knew that was the avenue he needed.
“This was about me coming to terms with an institution that I largely believe in, that isn’t honoring its commitment to its community or to its parishioners,” he said.
That’s because the experience with Father Squires never made M.G. lose faith in the church’s mission.
“This isn’t me saying the Catholic Church is a bad institution,” M.G. said. “This is me saying, ‘I think the church has made an awful mistake.’
“This is clearly the fault and the failure of individuals and an institution that is largely good, but a failure of that institution at large to really do the right thing.”