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.
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.