New Jersey will soon institute a new law giving survivors of sex abuse far more latitude in how they can seek justice in court — a measure under development for nearly a decade that supporters say would be among the most expansive in the nation.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who has led the fight to reform New Jersey’s statute of limitations on sex-abuse cases, said Gov. Phil Murphy intends to sign the bill within the next two weeks. Murphy has indicated his support for the plan, but his office declined to comment on the timing Thursday.
The bill (S-477) which passed both houses earlier this month with near unanimous support, would end the current two-year statute of limitations — or the time in which survivors are allowed to file suit in civil court – and give adult victims up to seven years to pursue their case. If the abuse involves a minor, that person could file a claim anytime up until age 55, according to lawmakers.
The law would apply to cases filed after it takes effect. But for those barred from challenging their alleged attackers under the current statute of limitations, the legislation would create a temporary two-year window in which they could pursue a case. It also expands who could be held liable, enabling victims to pursue damages against anyone who knowingly permitted the abuse.
“Survivors of child sexual abuse and rape will finally be able to find justice,” Vitale said Thursday. “And those rapists and institutions that enabled them will be held accountable.”
According to Child USA, a national advocacy group, sexual abuse afflicts one in four girls and one in six boys nationwide. Easing of statutes of limitations are critical, the group believes, since a combination of trauma, shame and other factors often keeps survivors from sharing these secrets for decades. The average age for disclosing these attacks is 52 years.
A growing national trend
More than three dozen states have revised their statute of limitations laws since 2002, when the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published its landmark series on sex abuse at the hands of clergy in the Boston Archdiocese. But Child USA said many of these reforms have been insufficient, and don’t go as far as the provisions included in the New Jersey legislation. (New York recently adopted legislation that is now considered the nation’s strongest, which Vitale said is based on the Garden State bill.)
Vitale’s bill dates to 2010 and was long opposed by Catholic leaders in the Garden State, who feared it would bankrupt the church. New Jersey bishops have since come to support the concept, although they would prefer survivors tap into a victims-compensation program set up by the church rather than seeking an award in court.
Catholic dioceses in New Jersey were already required to report abuse allegations to local prosecutors under a 16-year-old agreement with the state. But in September, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal established a task force to investigate abuse cases, following the release of a grand-jury report from Pennsylvania that included more than 1,000 allegations against Catholic leaders; Grewal’s hotline quickly became overwhelmed with calls.
Vitale said the Pennsylvania report and the Attorney General’s task force helped bolster political support for his bill. The measure was also fueled by hours of raw, emotional testimony from New Jersey residents who recounted stories of abuse at the hands of church leaders. Many said they felt robbed by the state’s current statute of limitations, which made it nearly impossible to hold accountable those who caused them harm.
“The process was gut-wrenching for all the survivors,” Vitale said. “But they were brave to openly testify about their abuse.”
The bill — also sponsored by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly members Annette Quijano (D-Union), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), and Mila Jasey (D-Essex) — would take effect immediately.