By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor

Legislation that would give sexual abuse victims more time to file civil lawsuits against public and nonprofit entities is now before Gov. Phil Murphy after being passed March 25 by the state Assembly. The state Senate passed the bill March 14.

Under the bill, S477/A3648, victims would be allowed to file a lawsuit up to age 55 or at any age seven years from the time they make the connection between the abuse and their injuries. The current statute of limitations is two years from the time a victim at any age realizes he/she was harmed.

In recent testimony before lawmakers, Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, stressed that the New Jersey bishops have always worked to prevent the abuse of any child and to promote healing for victims. Each diocese has a victim assistance coordinator who facilitates the provision of counseling and other professional assistance to help those who have been abused. In November 2018, the bishops created a Victims Compensation Program to assist victims who were sexually abused by clergy while minors.

The New Jersey bishops commissioned the program to offer recourse to victims whose cases had fallen beyond the existing statute of limitations and/or had not previously been settled by the Dioceses. The program follows the many initiatives adopted by the Catholic Dioceses in New Jersey since 2002 that aim to safeguard children and provide assistance to victims.

This new program is in addition to the $50 million paid in settlements by the five dioceses over the years – $40 million of which was to victims whose cases fell beyond the statute of limitations.

Brannigan testified March 7 on behalf of New Jersey’s Catholic bishops, expressing “sincere regret that in decades past, some in the Church failed in their responsibility to protect children.

“We must protect our children – first, foremost and always. I am here today to stress our sincere and demonstrated commitment toward creating safe environments in which to worship, learn and gather in our parishes, schools and other parish settings,” he said.

In a recent interview, he discussed the legitimate reasons of having a statute of limitations in place. “The more time that exists between the alleged conduct and the filing of a civil suit, the more challenging the cases can be to process. The reality is that records can get lost, people die, memories fade.”

As the bill moved through legislative committees, Brannigan recapped his efforts on behalf of the bishops to work with sponsors of both the Assembly and Senate versions of the bill on several key points, including delaying the bill’s effective date from Dec. 1, 2019, so that victims’ claims could be filed and processed for the Church’s Victims’ Compensation Program. The bill passed without the requested amendments.