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  N.J. Law Still Blocks Suits on Sex Abuse by Clergy

By John Chadwick chadwick@northjersey.com
NewJersey.com [New Jersey]
May 2, 2003

The grieving parents sued the Catholic Church, seeking justice in the death of their son.

Christopher Schultz of Emerson had committed suicide months after accusing a Roman Catholic brother of sexually abusing him.

He was 12 when he drank poison from his parents' medicine cabinet.

But New Jersey courts said the family had no case, regardless of whether there was any evidence.

They ruled that an obscure state law protected the Newark Archdiocese from even having to stand trial.

That was in 1984.

In the nearly two decades since, New Jersey's Charitable Immunity Act has scuttled scores more lawsuits, including many alleging clergy sexual abuse. In the wake of the crisis in the Catholic Church, the statute has become the focal point in a battle for change.

Two state lawmakers have submitted bills that would strip churches and other non-profits of their immunity in cases involving sexual abuse of a minor. Richard Schultz Jr., Christopher's brother, who says he, too, was abused by the religious brother, has emerged after decades of silence to tell his story and voice support for the two bills pending in the Legislature. One of those bills mentions Christopher Schultz by name.

"Last year I felt like I was going through my brother's death all over again," said Richard Schultz, a police sergeant in Fair Lawn. "I'm convinced the only way we'll ever see an end to this crisis is when the church is forced to change, when the law says they have to."

But church officials are fighting the bills. They say the bishops have taken steps to solve the sex abuse crisis. And they fear that changing the law would pave the way for costly lawsuits. "This is all about wanting to find a deep pocket," said William F. Bolan Jr., executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

The act was approved more than 40 years ago to provide a powerful legal defense for organizations whose work is considered a benefit to society. Churches, charities, and private schools routinely argue for charitable immunity to win dismissals in negligence lawsuits.

But victims say the statute makes it impossible for them to sue for wrongdoing and bring the case to trial.

Early this year, a state judge threw out a pair of lawsuits against a Princeton-based boarding school, where dozens of former students say they were molested by a choir director. Judge Jack Sabatino ruled that "the act insulates charitable organizations from liability ... no matter how flagrant that conduct may be."

Forty-one states have either abolished charitable immunity or never provided the protection to begin with. But in New Jersey, the church has aggressively lobbied lawmakers against removing immunity protection. Bolan and Newark Archbishop John J. Myers met personally with Democratic Senate President Richard Codey last year to express their opposition to the bills, as well as to a proposal to remove the statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes. Codey reportedly told them that some action was inevitable and that the church had to find a plan it could support.

But the church appears to have won. A Senate bill seeking to modify the act has languished for two years. A similar bill was introduced in the Assembly last year and has also gone nowhere.

Standing at opposing sides are two well-known senators.

Joseph Vitale, a Democrat from Middlesex County, introduced the Senate bill.

"I can't get the Judiciary Committee to post it for a hearing," Vitale said. "I have made numerous requests for the bill to be heard in a public forum, and, as of today, I haven't been granted that request."

Sen. William Gormley, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined several requests for an interview. Gormley, a Republican from Atlantic County, told The New York Times in January that Vitale's bill "isn't going to be moving."

Simply put, the Charitable Immunity Act protects non-profit organizations, their employees, and their volunteers, from lawsuits claiming negligence, if the victim is a beneficiary or a member of the organization. That applies to the parishioner who slips and falls on an icy church parking lot, and the parochial school student who is abused by his pastor. In both cases, the law says the church as a whole can't be held liable.

The law was amended in 1995, allowing victims to sue individual employees or volunteers in more serious cases - those that are considered "gross negligence" - such as sexual abuse.

But even in those cases, the organization as a whole cannot be held liable.

"If you or I leave our child in a church school, and the child is molested, abused, or harmed, the natural reaction is to hold the church and its people responsible," said John Thatcher, a lawyer in Hunterdon County. "This law prevents that from happening."

Thatcher represented two men who in 1995 sued the Presbyterian Church, alleging they were molested as boys by their pastor. But an appeals court dismissed the case, saying the immunity act shields the national, regional, and local church.

Vitale's bill would essentially create an exception to the law. The bill would remove immunity protection when plaintiffs assert that the negligent hiring or supervision of an employee resulted in the sexual abuse of a minor.

"There has to be some kind of accountability," Vitale said. "I know the dioceses are doing all they can to follow the new rules and guidelines. But if another instance of abuse happens, that organization has to be held accountable."

Bolan, of the Catholic Conference, said the bill punishes the church for matters it cannot control. For example, he said there is no scientific way to screen out pedophiles from the clergy.

"Negligent hiring is a clever lawyer's trick," he said. "We already do background checks and psychological testing. Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to screen for pedophiles."

Bolan also said there's nothing in the act to prevent a victim of sexual abuse from suing an individual abuser. "The perpetrator does not receive immunity under this statute," he said.

Despite the immunity act, New Jersey dioceses have paid large cash settlements this year to victims of clergy abuse. Diocesan officials gave a range of reasons.

Some said they believed settlement was the best option in cases with large numbers of plaintiffs. Others said that until 1995, there was a loophole in the law that made them uncomfortable with using it as a defense in every case.

Even so, New Jersey courts have repeatedly upheld charitable immunity as a defense. As a result, those cases rarely reach the fact-finding stage.

The most famous case is that of Christopher Schultz.

In 1978, Richard, 14, and Christopher, 11, told their parents they had been sexually abused by Robert Coakley, a Franciscan brother who served as their scoutmaster and parochial school teacher.

In an interview, Richard said he and his brother were abused in separate episodes at a Boy Scout camp in New York State. Richard said Coakley masturbated in front of him once. The abuse described by Christopher involved physical contact and continued through the summer camp session and into the school year.

The two boys shared a tent at camp, but neither spoke of the abuse. "I didn't have the ability to tell him," Richard said. "Neither of us could express what was going on."

Christopher began suffering deep depression. There were hospital stays and suicide attempts. The eighth-grader died on Memorial Day weekend, after drinking from a bottle of liniment.

Coakley, who was transferred out of state by his order and died in 1988, was never charged with a crime because the family apparently had not told law enforcement officials until after Christopher died.

The family's civil suit against the archdiocese reached the state Supreme Court in 1983. Justices ruled on only one question: Can the church be held liable under the immunity act? They passionately disagreed, voting 4-3 to dismiss the case.

The majority concluded: "Others must reconcile the issues of moral responsibility. As to legal responsibility we find ... a charity is not liable for negligence."

Richard Schultz said his family was destroyed by his brother's death and then by the court's decision. His parents later divorced. His father, who died a few years ago, was wracked by guilt.

"They saw their lives as Catholics and everything they were taught to believe in fail them," Schultz said. "There was a tremendous amount of emptiness."

 
 

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