New Jersey last week finally eased its time limits for filing civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, culminating a decade of effort energized by new cases against the Roman Catholic Church.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the sweeping bipartisan reforms of statutes of limitation that have prevented many from seeking damages because too much time had passed since the alleged abuse occurred.
Victims of childhood sexual assault will now have — starting Dec. 1 when the law takes effect — an additional 35 years to sue perpetrators, until they are 55 years old instead of the current limit of 20 years old.
That same day, moreover, a two-year period will begin in which victims of any age can file lawsuits for abuse that occurred in the past.
Critics of the law have argued that it will unleash a wave of lawsuits that may bankrupt nonprofit and charitable organizations, eliminating the services they provide to communities. The time limit for suing such institutions was eliminated retroactively, despite opposition to that from the Roman Catholic Bishops of New Jersey.
There are reasons to believe that the benefits of the eased filing limits will far outweigh any collateral damage. If anything, it seems more likely that lawmakers might remove such limits altogether someday.
While more lawsuits are certain, their success is much less so. Proving abuse is difficult and becomes more so with the passage of years. Institutional liability will require proving the abuse and that an organization protected the perpetrator through specific negligent actions.
Opening the door to all allegations will be a powerful tool to help root out adults anywhere who misuse positions of trust to abuse children. As state Senate President Steve Sweeney said at the signing, “This bill captures everyone.”
The age 55 deadline for filing may sound like plenty of time, but according to the nonprofit Child USA, the average age that victims come forward is 52.
Legislation easing filing limits has been passed or is pending in 24 states, and some such as Delaware already have removed the statute of limitations entirely for filing civil cases in child abuse. Many states already have done so for charges of sex crimes against children.
The bill signed by Murphy originally eliminated the time limit for filing. As the new law helps hold accountable clergy, coaches, caregivers and many others who have so far escaped detection — and as New Jersey completes the investigation of clergy it began in September — legislators should reconsider having any time limit on civil accusations of child sexual abuse.