Susanne Robertson alleges that she was sexually assaulted by Sister Regina and a maintenance man while living at a Catholic-run orphanage in the 1960s
A new child sex crimes law goes into effect in New York Wednesday allows Susanne Robertson to sue St. Colman’s Home for what she says were years of abuse.Jeenah Moon / for NBC News
Susanne Robertson has devoted much of her life to sounding the alarm over the horrific abuse she says she suffered at a New York orphanage more than 50 years ago.
A maintenance man sexually assaulting her in a boiler room. A nun violating her with a Lysol-soaked rag.
For nearly 25 years, her efforts to force a reckoning on the St. Colman’s Home near Albany have gone nowhere.
But now, the opportunity Robertson has been waiting for has finally arrived.
A new child sex crimes law goes into effect in New York Wednesday that allows Robertson to sue St. Colman’s for what she says were years of abuse that wrecked her childhood and continue to torment her today.
“The things that they did — people would not believe,” Robertson told NBC News. “This nun” — who she identified as Sister Regina — “was a pedophile.”
“People need to understand,” Robertson said, “that was a torture chamber on a Dickens level.”
Robertson, 68, says she’s not interested in making money off of her lawsuit against St. Colman’s, which now exists as a group home for autistic children run by the same order of nuns that operated the orphanage.
“I want to bankrupt them,” she said. “They need never, ever have the chance to abuse children again.”
Robertson and other former St. Colman’s residents interviewed by NBC News said they endured a litany of horrors at the hands, boots and sticks wielded by the nuns who patrolled the orphanage’s hallways.
But the new law applies only to those who allege they were sexually assaulted.
The bill allows sex abuse victims to file civil suits — regardless of when the abuse happened — during a one-year window that ends in August 2020.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York Child Victims Act into law in February, a move that advocates say will open the floodgates for child abuse victims long denied a chance to secure a measure of justice against sexual predators and the institutions that protected them.
“Children that have been raped and molested and sodomized by the people that they trusted, have a right to know that they matter, and that justice is there for them,” said Kathryn Robb, the executive director of Child USAdvocacy, an organization focused on strengthening child protection laws.
New York is the first state to pass legislation this year that grants child sex abuse victims the opportunity to file legal action against their alleged perpetrators regardless of when the acts took place. Four other states and Washington, D.C., have now passed similar laws.
Robb, who helped lead the decade-long fight for a bill in New York, credited the Me Too movement and a Democrat-takeover of the state legislature for paving the way for its passage.
“We had some really great leaders that I felt were going to do the right thing, and they did,” Robb told NBC News.
Born to what she described as a mentally unstable mother and an emotionally detached father, Robertson and her sister June Maloney were dropped off at St. Colman’s in the summer of 1957.
Robertson was six; Maloney was a year younger.
The sisters say they witnessed and were subjected to physical abuse almost immediately. There were beatings for the way orphans wore their clothes. Beatings for the way they read their prayers. And beatings for the way they made their beds.
Robertson said she fractured 11 ribs in assaults administered by Sister Regina and the other nuns at St. Colman’s.
But it wasn’t until Robertson was 11 or 12 when she says the sexual abuse began.
Robertson said she was standing in a line of girls awaiting their turn to shower when Sister Regina singled her out for wearing a slip she had been issued by the nuns.
“She said you could see my underwear and bra through the slip,” Robertson recalled.
Regina pulled her out of the line and commanded her to remove the undergarment in front of the other girls, Robertson said. But she refused.
“So she grabbed it and started to tear it off,” Robertson said. “She shredded that slip. It was probably in 50 pieces on the floor.”
Robertson said Regina then pulled off her bra and tied her hands behind her back with the yellow knit socks she had been wearing.
“I stood naked except for underwear in front of all the girls going into the shower,” Robertson said.
Once everyone was done, Robertson said, Regina turned to her and uttered a chilling threat.
“I’m going to teach you some respect for your body,” the nun said, according to Robertson.
Regina forced the preteen girl into a shower, marched off to a supply closet and returned with a brown bottle of Lysol with black and red writing on it, Robertson said.
“She poured some on a cloth and she scrubbed my face and my eyes, up my nose and in my mouth,” Robertson said. “Then she soaped it up again and shoved it inside me.”
Robertson said Sister Regina violated her a second time after an incident that 60 years later she still struggles to describe without breaking down in tears.
THE MAINTENANCE MAN
His name was Guy, and the little girls of St. Colman knew him as the maintenance man.
He was a man of about 40 or 50 years old who wore a navy blue uniform. Robertson still remembers his features.
A big nose. Salt and pepper wavy hair. Large hands. Hairy arms.
Robertson said Guy began preying on her when she was still a preteen, kissing her forcibly in the hallways and putting his hands where they didn’t belong.
Then, one day in the early 1960s, he escalated his attacks, Robertson said.
The maintenance man forced Robertson into a boiler room, she said, where he sodomized her with a broom before raping her.