Lawmakers consider extending statute of limitations on sex abuse

It was raw, emotional testimony before Trenton lawmakers from many victims of sexual abuse — including sisters abused by a priest from New Jersey in the 1980s. They described the trauma they suffered, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to support S477 — a bill that would amend and extend New Jersey’s two-year civil statute of limitations and give sex abuse victims more time to come forward and sue.

“So much of our story is missing because so much of our story is here in New Jersey and we have had no discovery,” said sexual assault survivor Patty Fortney-Julius.

“The two-year limit, a two-year discovery rule, means the vast majority of your victims in this state have had no chance at justice,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of Child USA.

One alleged victim, Katie Brennan, is well known for accusing a former Murphy administration staffer of sexual assault. Prosecutors declined to charge her alleged attacker so she’s filed a civil suit.

“I, and almost all survivors, watch our rapists live free while we suffer in silence. The system is not built for survivors,” said Brennan.

The amended law would permit all sexual abuse victims to civilly sue both institutions and specific individuals. It would let victims of childhood sexual abuse file civil suits up until age 55 or seven years after they recognize and connect their emotional trauma to their abuse. Victims previously denied the right to sue because of the statute of limitations would get a second chance — a two-year window of Dec. 1 of this year through Nov. 30, 2021 — to file cases, even if victims are over 55.

Sponsors say the bill sends a message.

“The state of New Jersey will no longer tolerate such actions and protections for such horrific acts, but we that we will allow responsibility to be taken for these acts that have occurred in the past,” said Sen. Nick Scutari, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Some charitable and municipal organizations fear the bill will open them up to lawsuits because it applies to organizations across the board, not just to the Catholic church, which has been rocked by the priest sex abuse scandal.

Jersey bishops said in a statement they back S477 in concept, but disagree with allowing the church as an organization to be sued retroactively in old cases. New Jersey’s Catholic bishops also claim the bill’s implementation date overlaps and undermines the church’s victims compensation program.

“Because attorneys will say don’t go to the compensation program, go and bring a lawsuit. So we are suggesting let the compensation program carry out thru Dec. 31,” said Patrick Branigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

“They say they support it, and they say, ‘well, except for this clause, and that clause,’ which goes to the heart of the issue — which is to hold abusers, rapists, and any organization that may have been accountable, or culpable, in that abuse. They want them out of it,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale.

The bill’s sponsors say they expect it will be voted on later this month. Vitale says the bill has Gov. Phil Murphy’s support.

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