Thanks to the power of the Catholic Church and the American Tort Reform Association, New Jersey lawmakers have been unable to muster sufficient courage to pass a measure that shouldn't require any particular courage at all - eliminating the two-year statute of limitations for sexual-abuse lawsuits.

Similar bills have died in previous sessions, thanks to opposition from the tort-reform group and the church, which has paid billions to settle sexual-abuse suits nationwide.

But the Jerry Sandusky case should give this measure all the clout it needs to pass the Legislature when lawmakers return from their summer break.

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On June 21, the Senate Judiciary Committee amended and approved a measure that would eliminate the statute of limitations for personal-injury suits alleging sexual abuse and allow victims to sue individuals, institutions and government entities no matter when the alleged abuse occurred.

The bill would apply to any action filed on or after the law's effective date, even if the previous two-year statute of limitations has already expired.

The Catholic Church has sought to limit the exemption from the statute of limitations to future cases only. In an apparent nod to the church's concern, the bill has been amended to revive for only two years any sexual-abuse suits previously dismissed on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.

Still, the measure is a good one, and a crucial step for victims of sexual abuse. The bill is now ready for a vote in the full Assembly and Senate, and lawmakers should approve it when they return.

Some of the counts for which Sandusky was convicted go back decades. Because of the nature of sexual abuse, victims often bury their memories or feel an unwarranted shame or guilt that stops them from pursuing their abusers - or even talking about the abuse.

But the crime leaves lifetime pain - and victims should have lifetime access to the courts.

Indeed, that's one reason why New Jersey eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions of sexual abuse in 1996. But it has not joined the 10 other states that have lifted the statute of limitations in civil cases.

All courthouse doors - civil and criminal - should be open to victims of this heinous crime.

Opponents of the measure say that it is difficult for institutions to defend themselves against allegations that go back decades. But the passage of time also makes it difficult to prove such allegations. Eliminating the statute of limitations for sex-abuse suits simply gives victims their day in court - it doesn't guarantee they will win. They will still have to convince a judge and jury.

And like it or not, the civil courts are sometimes the only recourse for victims of sexual abuse. A dead abuser can't be tried and sent to prison. But any institution that failed to stop an abuser should be subject to legal action, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

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