The fight has been long and hard. It has taken two decades for survivors of sexual abuse to get justice. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill today.
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says the impact the law will have cannot be overstated.
“This will finally allow survivors in New Jersey more time to come forward and hold their perpetrators accountable for the crimes that they committed,” she said.
The New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops, had successfully pressured lawmakers to steer clear of the legislation for many years. That changed, however, after a Pennsylvania grand jury investigated and released the names of 300 clergy members credibly accused of sexual assault last summer.
In September, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced he was launching a similar effort to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy within the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey, and any efforts to cover up such abuse.
The legislation would dramatically expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse. It would give child victims until age 55 or within seven years of realizing they were abused to file a lawsuit. It would also give survivors who were previously blocked from suing their perpetrators a two-year window to bring cases. Democratic State Senator Joe Vitale is the lead sponsor of the bill.
This year, 35 states are considering legislation to expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, according to Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the group Child USA.
“This is the most active year in history on statute of limitations issues,” Hamilton said.
New York recently expanded its civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse and dozens of other states including California and Virginia are considering similar measures.
“I think we’ve reached a point where the public is finally 100 percent behind the victims,” Hamilton said. “Nobody seems to be afraid anymore of the institutions.”
The Catholic Church in New Jersey has historically fought this type of legislation and the church lobbyists have been successful for nearly two decades. Not so this year. Now, the 5 dioceses in New Jersey have said they agree with the legislation in principle but have urged the Governor to delay passage until they complete their recently launched compensation program. The New Jersey compensation program, similar to the ones in New York and Pennsylvania, puts aside issues of liability and evaluates the claims in terms of compensation. However, the program excludes religious order priests which remain an under-documented demographic in terms of sexual abuse.
Once the Governor signs this legislation, survivors will have options in terms of seeking justice against the institutions which allowed the abuse.