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.
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.
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.
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