By Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor, and Jennifer Mauro, Managing Editor

The Church’s voice joined those of victims and lawmakers over the past few weeks as legislation that would profoundly change the statute of limitations in sexual abuse civil action cases moved forward in Trenton.

The latest action came March 14 when the state Senate voted in favor of the bill, meaning it now goes to the state Assembly on March 25.

Currently, victims in New Jersey regardless of age have two years from the time they realized they were harmed to file civil lawsuits in sexual abuse cases. The bill, S477/A3648, would allow victims up to age 55 to file a lawsuit, and would give those older than that age seven years to take legal action. It would also allow sexual abuse victims to sue both institutions and specific individuals.

“We certainly agree with the intent to bring justice to the victims,” said Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, emphasizing that the (arch)dioceses of New Jersey have, over many years, actively sought to amend the statute of limitations.

“It must be recognized that there are often legitimate reasons to have 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,” he said.

“However,” he continued, “this has never been about denying justice for the victims. That is why $40 million of the $50 million paid in settlements by the five dioceses over the last 10 years has gone to victims whose cases fell beyond the statute of limitations.”

Brannigan as well as sexual abuse victims, many of whom came from outside the state, testified March 7 and 11 when the bill was heard in both Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees.

Among the victims to testify March 7 was Olympic hopeful Sarah Klein, a Pennsylvania resident and victim’s advocate who became the first to publicly accuse USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse. She told of being molested for 17 years by Nassar, a family friend, explaining that she didn’t realize she had been a victim until more than 30 years later, at age 38, when she began reading stories in the media about Nassar’s other victims. She also learned that her statute of limitations had expired 19 years earlier.

Brannigan testified March 7 on behalf of New Jersey’s Catholic Bishops, saying how “we sincerely 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.

Brannigan reported that as a result of the Church’sefforts, millions of adults, children, employees, clergy and volunteers have been trained in Church-led programs to detect and prevent abuse, and hundreds of thousands of individuals who have regular contact with minors have undergone criminal background checks.

During the two Judiciary Committee hearings, Brannigan said that the NJCC has attempted to work with sponsors of both the Assembly and Senate versions of the bill, and has suggested provisions that would:

• Eliminate the statute of limitations for both institutions and perpetrators going forward;

• Retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations for perpetrators – the persons who actually committed the abuse, which is what the New Jersey School Boards Association had advocated;

• Retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations for institutions and perpetrators back to 1996 – the year the criminal statute was eliminated. 

Brannigan also asked that if the bill were to be passed as written – applying to both institutions and perpetrators retroactively – then consideration be given to delay the effective date from Dec. 1, 2019, until the Church’s Victims’ Compensation Program, which pays eligible victims who were sexually abused by clergy while minors, can be completed. This independently administered program, announced by the state’s bishops in November, is an alternative to litigation that provides victims with a speedy and transparent process to resolve their claims with a significantly lower level of proof and corroboration than required in a court of law. 

The program will take claims through Dec. 31, 2019, and settlements will then start to be awarded in the following months. The administrators will also comply with the long-standing commitment by the five dioceses to report any allegation to the appropriate county prosecutor unless it has already been reported. 

The bill that passed in the Senate and the one that will come before the Assembly did not accommodate the delayed effective date requested by the Church.

Associate publisher Rayanne Bennett contributed to this report.