Catholic Church leaders are sparing no expense to try to stop legislation that would make it easier for victims of sexual abuse to seek damages in court - a move that sends a strange message at a time when many Catholics are calling for reform within the church bureaucracy and an honest accounting of past actions.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference has hired the most expensive lobbying group in the state, Princeton Public Affairs Group, to help represent church officials in Trenton. The church takes positions on many issues, but its biggest battle lately has been to stop a bill that would extend the rights of abuse victims to sue.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, has been trying for years to get a bill through the Legislature to give abuse victims more time to file civil suits. Currently, suits must be filed within two years after an abuse victim turns 18 or discovers the abuse. Vitale's bill, which came close to passage before stalling last year, would eliminate the two-year limit.

The church's opposition to this bill shows it is tone deaf to the rising call for justice for people who were abused as children.

It is natural for large organizations to act to protect themselves, and the Catholic Church has already paid billions of dollars nationally to victims of abuse by priests. But that impulse to protect the organization at all costs is what led to one of the worst aspects of the worldwide child sex-abuse scandal - the fact that some church officials failed to report criminal activity and, instead, transferred sexual predators to new assignments, where they were often still in contact with children.

Earlier this year, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers came under fire when it was discovered that a priest who had confessed in 2007 to groping a child and who had signed an agreement to never again work with children was attending retreats with teens.

There are no limits to the damage suffered by victims of sexual abuse. Why should any limits be put on the victims' search for justice? It can take decades for some child-abuse victims to find the courage to come forward. New Jersey recognized this in 1996, when lawmakers eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal sexual abuse cases. But the limitation on civil cases remains.

Yet it has only been the efforts of abuse victims - and the large sums the church has had to pay - that have forced the Catholic hierarchy to change its behavior.

It is one thing for groups to want to help shape legislation that concerns them, but for Catholic bishops, who are supposed to be defending the powerless, to hire a top lobbying firm to pressure lawmakers to kill this bill is just outrageous.


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