Over the past decade, New Jersey legislators have considered easing the tight deadlines that victims of sexual abuse face in filing civil lawsuits for damages.
Twice the legislation got nowhere, but events of the past year or so have made an unstoppably strong case for the change.
After a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified 300 Catholic Church clergy members credibly accused of sexual assault, New Jersey in September launched its own investigation. In February, New Jersey’s Roman Catholic dioceses released a list of 188 priests and deacons credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
In 2017-18, USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 140 to 300 years in prison on multiple guilty pleas after accusations he molested at least 250 girls and young women.
This year a special committee of the Legislature has been investigating the handling by the campaign and administration of Gov. Phil Murphy of a sexual assault allegation by one campaign staffer against another. Katie Brennan, who has filed a civil suit against the state and alleged attacker Al Alvarez, was among the first to testify at a state Senate hearing on the bill to make it easier to file such lawsuits.
Against this backdrop of events, the Senate unsurprisingly passed the bill 32-1. It should become law and surely will, perhaps after additional amendment by the Assembly or governor.
The core change would replace the current two-year statute of limitations with a seven-year period to file suit after an assault. The period would start for those assaulted as children when they discover the connection between their psychological injury and their abuse, but end no later than age 55.
The bill currently also would give victims who missed their chance to sue due to the two-year statute of limitations another two-year window in which to file civil charges — from Dec. 1 through Nov. 30, 2021. They may sue even if over age 55.
The Senate-passed bill would hold individuals other than abusers liable for negligence in some circumstances if a person they supervise or oversee commits sexual assault or abuse.
The Roman Catholic Bishops of New Jersey, in a recent commentary published in The Press, said they support fully eliminating the state of limitations going forward for suing the perpetrators of abuse and institutions found liable in such abuse. That’s a stronger easing than the bill’s seven years.
The bishops also support retroactively eliminating the time limit for suing perpetrators, but not for suing institutions such as the church. The bill would assert several retroactive liabilities for institutions.
Non-profit organizations for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes would be liable retroactively for “willful, wanton or grossly negligent acts resulting in abuse that occurred prior to Aug. 8, 2006” — the day the N.J. Supreme Court asserted such liability going forward. The bill would immunize uncompensated officers and voluntary members from such retroactive liability.
The liability for negligence in hiring and supervising someone who abuses a minor — established by a 2006 law — would be applied to any cases prior to that law.
The new law’s many benefits for victims would still leave challenges. While it would be easier to sue over abuse from years ago, proving old claims would remain difficult. And the expansion of litigation would ensure that society will need at least several more years before it starts to put this terrible period of too-tolerated child abuse behind it.
But by broadly enabling victims to be heard, the reforms will allow the public and the law to find and hold accountable coaches, clergy, caregivers, medical personnel and many others in positions of power over children who have so far managed to escape detection and justice. That’s what is needed to stop this scourge.