New Jersey Senate Approves Bill Removing Time Limits on Sex Abuse Lawsuits

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In a 32-1 vote, the New Jersey Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that had languished in committee for years.  Abuse survivor advocates have argued that the present law prohibits survivors from seeking justice in civil courts due to the restrictive statute of limitations.

The bill would extend the current statute of limitations from two years to seven years for adult victims of sexual assault, as well as expand the categories of defendants liable in such actions, passed the full Senate on Thursday by a 32-1 vote.

The measure, S-477, also creates a window so child victims from the past are not shut out of filing suit against their abusers years later. For instance, in an incident of sexual assault occurring before a victim turned 18, that person would be able to file a claim any time up until turning 55.

Research has shown victims tend to report cases of sexual abuse later in life—and why advocates say the change in law is needed. Mental health experts and the Centers for Disease Control have put 55 as the average reporting age of past sexual abuse.

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Governor Phil Murphy in November 2015

Once signed by Gov. Murphy, S-477 would go into effect on Dec. 1, 2019.

However, the New Jersey Assembly has to approve the measure.  They meet on March 25th and could take a vote soon thereafter.

The bill’s Senate approval comes in the wake of numerous and continued Catholic Church abuse scandals, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, and neighboring state New York passing similar legislation.

New Jersey’s archdiocese and its four dioceses have formed a joint compensation fund to address the issue in the wake of the pending legislation.  If the legislation passes the Assembly and is signed into law by the Governor, New Jersey sex abuse survivors will have a choice whether to participate in the compensation fund or seek justice in the civil courts.  This is a choice denied survivors for decades as the laws in New Jersey and most states in the country favored protecting institutions like the Catholic Church rather than the rights of children and survivors of abuse.

Approximately a month prior to the Senate’s historic vote, the Archdiocese of Newark along with the dioceses of Trenton, Camden, Metuchen, and Paterson published a list of 180 priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors.  The Archdiocese of Newark led the list with 63 priests, Camden’s diocese listed 56 priests and one deacon; Trenton’s diocese named 30 priests; the Paterson diocese listed 28; and Metuchen’s diocese named nine plus two others who are currently the subject of State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal formed a task force in the fall to conduct a criminal investigation into sexual abuse by clergy in the state, shortly after a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified over 300 priests. The lists released by the diocese don’t include details about specific allegations or when they are alleged to have happened; rather, any details about the named priests and the crimes of which they are accused come from court records or previously published reports.

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St. Joseph Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Bayonne, New Jersey

Several priests who served in the Newark archdiocese have been accused of molesting boys as part of their volunteer work with Boy Scout troops, according to published reports. Others named in the release were arrested, convicted or pleaded guilty and were returned to service after probation or treatment, according to court records and published reports.

Carmen Sita changed his name to Gerald Howard after being sentenced to probation and receiving treatment and began serving as a priest in the Jefferson City, Missouri, diocese where he was assigned to a parish attached to a school. He was later accused of abusing teenage boys and was convicted a second time. The Missouri diocese reported Howard is currently incarcerated.

New Jersey is the latest of what is expected to be more states that will reform their statutes of limitations in order to properly address the scourge of childhood sexual abuse. 

New Jersey Latest Battleground in in Child Sex Abuse Fight

Seal of New Jersey

New Jersey, like its larger neighbor New York, has been considering legislation to expand or abolish the statute of limitations concerning child sex abuse for a decade now.  Each time legislation has been proposed in New Jersey it has been defeated.  Not so this year.  The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a bill that would greatly expand the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases in New Jersey. Now, the full Senate will consider the legislation.

The proposed legislation would allow child victims to sue up until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The current limit is two years. Adult victims also would have seven years from the discovery of the abuse. The bill also would give a two-year window to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations and allows victims to pursue claims as individuals as well as institutions.

A previous version of the bill, which eliminated the statute of limitations altogether, was approved by the same committee in 2010 and 2012. But the bill died before getting a full Senate vote. Nor did it have the stated support of the governor at the time.

Now, Gov. Murphy is backing the bill, and state Sen. Joe Vitale thinks he has the votes in the Senate — no doubt thanks to the horrid Pennsylvania grand jury report about clergy abuse.

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The legislation, if passed and signed into law by the Governor, would allow many survivors who had been previously denied the right to bring a lawsuit against the Catholic Church, access to the courts. The civil justice system would provide a gateway to the many secrets locked behind the doors of the Catholic Church and thus far protected by civil statutes of limitations that are unfair to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  It is in the discovery phase of a Catholic Church lawsuit that documents are made available that show the patterns of abuse, cover-up, and corruption in the Catholic Church.  Without those documents, we are often left to speculate or conjecture as to what the bishop knew about the priest abuser and when he knew it.  The documents also provide the public with a paper trail demonstrating what the bishop did once he was informed that a priest abused a child.  Did he transfer without informing the new diocese or parish?  Was he sent for treatment?  Was he allowed to continue working as a priest?  These are the crucial questions that are only answered in the context of a civil lawsuit. 

In Pennsylvania, the attorney general convened a grand jury that investigated every diocese in Pennsylvania.  The grand jury had subpoena power and was able to obtain these crucial documents.  We now know the terrible tragedy in Pennsylvania.  No diocese in the state was immune from the scourge and criminality of sexual abuse.  But we don’t know this in New Jersey.  We have bits and pieces of information but not the whole picture.  That is why this reform legislation is so important if the good people of New Jersey are going to finally deal with the problem of Catholic priest abuse in the state. 

Australian Cardinal Sentenced to Six Years in Prison for Sexually Abusing Two Boys

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Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest ranking Catholic official and the former head of Vatican finances, is heading to prison.  The 77-year-old cardinal is not eligible for parole for three years.  He plans to appeal his conviction and has consistently maintained his innocence.

It was the second trial that eventually led to Pell’s conviction on charges that he sexually molested two young choirboys while Archbishop of Melbourne.

Cardinal Pell in Rome in 2007

Cardinal Pell in Rome in 2007

Pell was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ballarat in 1966. He was consecrated a bishop in 1987, and appointed auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, becoming ordinary of the see in 1996. Pell was then Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2014, when he was made prefect of the newly-created Secretariat for the Economy. He served on Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals from 2013 to 2018. Cardinal Pell ceased to be prefect of the economy secretariat Feb. 24.

Cardinal Pell faced as many as 50 years in prison after being convicted in December for the molestation of two choir boys while he was the archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s. Pell must serve a minimum of three years and eight months before he is eligible for parole.

He will spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender.

Pell was convicted for the assault of the 13-year-old boys after he caught them swigging sacramental wine in a rear room of Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in late 1996. The jury also found Pell guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.

Chief Judge Peter Kidd of Victoria’s County Court said in his sentencing remarks that Pell’s age and history of cardiac issues were a “significant” factor in his sentencing decision. For the same reasons, Kidd also said did not consider there to be a high risk of Pell reoffending.

During the nearly hour-long sentencing remarks, Kidd called Pell’s attack “brazen” and suggested that the cleric was “breathtakingly arrogant” in his attack on the young boys.

“There is no evidence of your remorse or contrition,” Kidd said Wednesday in court.

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Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archevêque de Lyon, 2008

Pell is not the only cardinal making news in the criminal courts.  French cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon and one of France’s most senior religious figures, was sentenced to a six-month suspended prison sentence for failing to report between July 2014 and June 2015 the sexual abuse allegations made against a priest from his diocese, Bernard Preynat, in the 1980s and 1990s. Preynat is due to go on trial later this year.

“The responsibility and guilt of the cardinal have been confirmed by this judgment. It’s an extraordinary symbol, a moment of huge emotion,” Yves Sauvayre, a lawyer for the victims, told reporters outside the court in Lyon.

Unlike Cardinal Pell, Barbarin will not face any time behind bars due to the suspended nature of his sentence.  However, the conviction is a blow to Catholicism in France and all Europe where the ancient faith is being rocked by a sex abuse scandal that never seems to go away.

Pinellas Teacher Arrested in Largo for Child Porn

Robert James Plotkin Clearwater Teacher Arrested for Child Pornography

Robert James Plotkin, a teacher since 2012 at Clearwater Intermediate, a dropout prevention middle school at 1220 Palmetto St. in Clearwater, Florida has been arrested and is being charged with on 10 counts of possession of child pornography and one count of tampering with physical evidence, according to Largo police.

Local police were tipped off about Plotkin on March 15 after his roommate called police to notify them that she had spotted child pornography on Plotkin’s laptop.  Plotkin knew officers were on the way, police said, because his roommate told him she reported him. The teacher then threw his laptop in a lake near his apartment at 225 Country Club Drive, police said. When officers arrived, Plotkin told them his computer was in the lake. Then he retrieved it for them, police said.

Officers took the laptop but did not arrest Plotkin. A cyber crimes investigator later retrieved images from the hard drive showing pornography involving children ages 3 to 17, police said.  “This is 2017. It’s not gonna happen,” said Largo Police Lieutenant Joe Coyle, referring to Plotkin’s efforts to destroy the evidence. “You’re not going to throw a computer in the water and think that you’re gonna erase all your images.”

Plotkin has been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of the criminal charges.

Plotkin’s Facebook page has no entries but states that he is originally from Ohio.

Child pornography is a scourge on our society and our community in particular.  It endangers our children and the harm wrought by child sexual abuse leaves life-long scars.

 

Photo Credit by WTSP Tampa Bay Sarasota News

Pennsylvania Senate Passes Legislation to Expand Statute of Limitation on Sex Abuse Cases

Pennsylvania Senate Passes Legislation to Expand Statute of Limitations on Sex Abuse Cases

In a vote of 48-0, the Pennsylvania state Senate has approved legislation that would give survivors of child sexual abuse an opportunity to seek justice in the civil courts.

The bill, which essentially reopens an old debate with the state House in the new legislative session, would give child victims until age 50 to bring civil lawsuits against abusers or those employers who were allegedly negligent in failing to stop them.

At present, the window to sue expires at age 30.  It would also eliminate any statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions for child sexual abuse.

The victory in the Senate does not mean that the legislation will necessarily become law in the Keystone State.  First, it must be reconciled with a much more restrictive bill in the House.  The House did add a retroactive provision in their bill which would give survivors a two year window to file sexual abuse lawsuits.

“We’re hopeful that the House will take it under careful consideration,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “We could move something forward for survivors of child sex abuse rather than offer them nothing.”

House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said the House will try to reach a consensus between the two chambers to “send a very strong bill with a strong message for victims to the governor.”

The new legislation comes in the wake of multiple grand jury investigations that have found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse involving Pennsylvania Catholic priests and the cover-up of the crimes by the state’s bishops over a period spanning the last fifty years.  Each Pennsylvania grand jury investigation has made it more difficult for the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania to deny or minimize the extend of the problem of child sex abuse in the state.

Photo Credit by Bestbudbrian via Wikimedia Commons

Judge Unseals USA Gymnastics Sex Abuse Files

A Georgia judge has ruled that files containing sexual abuse complaints against USA Gymnastics coaches, trainers, and officials should be made public.  

Just prior to the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, USA Gymnastics faced a firestorm over sexual abuse allegations concerning its young gymnasts.  

The allegations became public after IndyStar broke the story earlier this summer.  The newspaper’s investigation found numerous incidents of sexual abuse as well as an organization policy that withheld turning over such complaints to law enforcement officials unless the complainant signed a complaint. Given the nature of the sexual abuse of children, the demand for a signed confession made it virtually impossible for police to investigate possible sex crimes involving USA Gymnastics.

USA Gymnastics plans to appeal Judge Ronald K. Thompson’s ruling.  Thompson agreed to unseal 54 sex abuse complaint files and 12 depositions taken in the case. He said he will review them first as a “safety precaution” to ensure sensitive information isn’t released by mistake.

The attorney for USA Gymnastics attacked the media during the court hearing stating that reporters were on a “witch hunt”.  

According to the IndyStar, “The documents are expected to shed further light on how USA Gymnastics handled sexual abuse allegations against coaches who were members of its organization, including whether the national governing body reported those allegations to authorities.  Kelly Cutright, who was abused as a teen by her gymnastics coach, said the judge’s order to release the files is ‘a good first step’ toward protecting kids who are part of USA Gymnastics now. She disagreed with the organization’s contention that there was a witch hunt.”

Transparency and information are two key elements in stopping the abuse and exploitation of children.  It’s reprehensible that USA Gymnastics would characterize the public release of these documents as anything short of a search for truth and justice.  

Image courtesy of http://cdn2.gbtimes.com/