NEW YORK — As a Girl Scout growing up in upstate New York, Alice Weiss-Russell says she lived with a dark secret: The husband of her troop leader was sexually abusing her in the bathroom of a church basement where scout meetings were held in the 1980s.
Weiss-Russell has detailed her alleged ordeal in a new lawsuit filed against Girl Scouts of the USA, part of a flurry of child sex-abuse cases in New York using a “look back window” for making civil claims against abusers.
“For me, it gives me a chance to be heard because I didn’t have that chance when I was young and hold the Girl Scouts accountable for what happened to me,” Weiss-Russell told The Associated Press in a phone interview on Tuesday. The AP does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sex crimes unless they grant permission.
Another lawsuit, also filed Wednesday, accuses a Manhattan research centre of similarly looking the other way as a prominent physician abused dozens of children he was studying and treating for being small for their age.
The two lawsuits come after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill earlier this week granting a one-year extension to the state’s Child Victims Act. The law temporarily lifts the usual time limits on filing lawsuits for anyone suing over childhood sexual abuse.
The window to file had been due to close this month. But advocates for sex-abuse survivors pushed for the extension, in part by arguing that the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to put cases together in time to meet the deadline.
Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed statewide under the act that name defendants including disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.
The lawsuit against The Rockefeller University centres on allegations against a researcher at its hospital, Dr. Reginald Archibald, that began surfacing a decade after his 2007 death.
The abuse consisted of Archibald “photographing his child patients in sexually suggestive and lewd positions … and masturbating his male and female child patients,” says the suit filed by attorneys with the Marsh Law Firm. It alleges he once took a patient to his cabin in Canada, where he “where he drugged and penetrated the child.”
A message was left Thursday with The Rockefeller University and its hospital.
Weiss-Russell’s suit, also filed by The Marsh Law Firm along with Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, stands out because it appears to be one of the first of its kind against the Girl Scouts, said her lawyer, Jennifer Freeman.
Weiss-Russell, 48, of Syracuse, is accusing the organization of failing to protect her from a man described as a volunteer “co-troop leader” when she became a scout at age 11 in the mid-1980s. Freeman said the Girl Scouts organization violated its own policies at the time by allowing the man, whose wife co-led the troop, to be involved with her troop.
At the time, Weiss-Russell grew motivated to be a top-seller of cookies so she could earn the right to attend Girl Scout camps and get away from her abuser, she said in the interview.
But once back in the church basement, the man would make her touch him sexually, according to the lawsuit, which also accuses him of raping her. The abuse continued even after the abuser’s wife was alerted to her husband’s misconduct, Weiss-Russell’s lawyers say.
“I feared him,“ she said. He threatened to harm her and her family if she reported him and “he was always telling me that no one would believe me anyway,” she said.
Around the time she was 18 and a few years removed from the scouts, Weiss-Russell finally revealed to her mother what had happened, she said. She later tried to report the man to prosecutors, but was informed the statute of limitations had run out. More recently, a counsellor encouraged her to take advantage of the Child Victims Act as a way to get closure.
“Girl Scouts of the USA is aware of a complaint that was filed in New York alleging that a Girl Scout was harmed in the 1980s during Girl Scout activities,” the organization said in a statement. “At Girl Scouts, there is nothing we take more seriously than the safety and wellbeing of our girls, and we maintain rigorous safety protocols. We are looking into this complaint and will address the matter with the utmost care and concern.”
Weiss-Russell said she still runs into her alleged abuser, who lives near her in Syracuse. She recalled how he once approached her at a gas station and put his hand on her shoulder while saying hello.
“I froze up like the child, like the child he was when he was victimizing me, like I had no power,” she said. “He still to this day has power over me and I’m hoping through all this he won’t have power over me.”
Tom Hays, The Associated Press