Attorney: “Paradigm shift” coming from Diocese to school-related Child Victims Act lawsuits

Sep 27, 2019

Several area school districts will see child sex abuse lawsuits filed against them during the Child Victims Act’s one-year lookback window. That’s according to attorney Steve Boyd, who said his firm plans to file anywhere from 60 to 90 cases against public school districts in Western New York.

Steve Boyd, PC, and Jeff Anderson & Associates filed three suits Friday against Kenmore West High School, one case each against Hamburg and Niagara Falls high schools, one case against the former Mount St. Joseph Academy and two cases against Maryvale East Elementary School.

Margaret George, second from left, and Lorna Barrie, center, are survivors of alleged sex abuse at Kenmore West High School in the 1970s.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Boyd said Friday’s filings are “just the beginning” of the firm's public high school lawsuit. He singled out two local districts that were, allegedly, among the worst offenders.

“We don’t know why Kenmore is such a problem, but Kenmore is a huge problem,” Boyd said, speaking during a press conference at his law office in Williamsville. “And I can tell you that Niagara Falls is just as big. Niagara Falls had two perpetrators who were living together, and you will see in the coming weeks case after case after case against both of these school districts because there was some kind of culture problem that allowed these predators to get away with this.”

Two survivors of sexual abuse that allegedly took place by different faculty members at Kenmore West High School in the 1970s spoke publicly for the first time at Friday’s press conference. The Buffalo News also reported on the stories of Margaret George and Lorna Barrie Friday.

Lorna Barrie gave emotional testimony at a press conference Friday.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Barrie was a high school track star who was repeatedly abused by her coach. She gave an emotional testimony, at times wiping away tears, about how long it took her to understand that what happened wasn’t her fault.

“I stand before you today 61 years old, but inside of me is still the 16-year-old who was taken advantage of and just became filled with self-loathing, with just terrible feelings of guilt and anxiety about what was happening because I didn’t understand what was really going on,” she said.

Boyd said Barrie’s long-term struggle is one of the biggest differences he sees between child sex abuse cases involving the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, specifically those involving boys, and public school cases involving girls.

“A little boy is abused by an older man and grows up and knows that something wrong happened. [Whereas] a 14-year-old girl, I talked to a girl who was 11 who was abused by her basketball coach the other day, she grows up thinking, ‘Oh, I started too young,’" Boyd said.

Steve Boyd, PC, and Jeff Anderson & Associates filed eight lawsuits against local school districts Friday. Boyd said the firms expect to file between 60-90 cases against public school districts in Western New York during the one-year Child Victims Act lookback window.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Boyd said, in his opinion, women survivors of child sex abuse spend “a lot more time blaming themselves” than male survivors and he commended Barrie and George for speaking out.

Attorney Leah Costanzo, who will serve as lead litigation counsel on the firm's public school-related Child Victims Act cases, said the goal of having child sex abuse survivors come forward during the lookback window isn’t just to file lawsuits.

“Our goal is to tell the stories and encourage people to come forward and encourage that change and force it on people,” Costanzo said. “If you don’t speak up about it and if you don’t say anything and if you don’t force them to take responsibility for what happened, you’re never going to perpetuate that change.”

Given the recent child pornography charges against a teacher at City Honors School, WBFO asked the survivors if they have hope that our society will overcome child sex abuse.

George said she believes high-profile public reckonings like the trial and conviction of former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for multiple sex crimes and the examples local survivors like her and Barrie are setting are helping pave the way for cultural change.

“It will never be perfect,” she said, “but if your best friend tells you something in confidence like this, tell somebody. It could change a life.”

Barrie said, after all these decades, she just wants to find a resolution.

“That’s all I want to do here, is I just want to a) stop shaking and b) find a way to make peace. And I’m just very grateful to have that opportunity.”