Abuse Victims Hope for Reversal

By Karen Ayres
The Times [New Jersey]
November 12, 2003

John Hardwicke did not stand out as the best alto singer at the American Boychoir School back in 1970.

Nor does he set himself apart now with his accounts of sexual molestation at the Princeton Township school some 33 years later.

"It started out as touching on the shoulder, and then it just progressed from there to be more and more," Hardwicke said yesterday during a telephone interview. "It was all the time."

The Maryland resident filed a lawsuit against the prestigious music school in 2001. Soon thereafter, dozens of former students came forward to report abuse by school employees, and a class-action lawsuit was filed a year later.

But a Superior Court judge put a stop to the cases early this year when he ruled the school was not liable for damages under the state's "Charitable Immunity Act," which protects certain nonprofit groups against negligence claims.

Hardwicke and Douglas Palmatier - a Summit resident who filed the class-action suit - say the ruling is unfair, and they are slated to appeal the decision this morning to a three-judge appeals court panel in Morristown.

The ruling, which is not expected today, could open up the famous boarding school to dozens of lawsuits from former students who are reportedly waiting to decide whether to pursue their own cases of alleged abuse.

It also will have massive ramifications for nonprofit institutions like the Catholic Church, which are largely protected from civil lawsuits related to sexual abuse claims under the immunity law.

"If that decision is allowed to stand, New Jersey could become a safe haven for pedophiles - allowing them to abuse children with impunity and leaving their victims without civil remedy," said Keith Smith, Hardwicke's lawyer.-- -- --

When Hardwicke first entered the American Boychoir School in 1969, the seventh-grader was not abused.

It was a year later when Donald Hanson, a new choir director, arrived at the school that the molestation began, Hardwicke said yesterday.

"Within a couple weeks of his arrival at the school, that is when he started to molest me and the other kids as well," he said.

"There were certain things that happened that were really difficult for me because they didn't feel comfortable, but I was the teacher's pet. I was flattered. I really got very confused about what was happening."

Hardwicke said he never reported the sexual assaults to his parents, and though he knew of at least one other student who also was being victimized at the time, no one spoke of it.

"I felt it gave me some value, but in fact I've come to recognize it really devalued me," said Hardwicke, who said he was abused by other employees as well.

He left school in the spring of 1971 and ultimately finished his schooling in his native Maryland.

"I had been a straight-A student," he said. "I became a very poor student and socially withdrawn. I never related all those problems to the fact that I had been abused."

It was roughly 20 years later, after Hardwicke sought help from a therapist, that he ultimately realized he had been abused.

"It was only through an awful lot of talking with the therapist that I realized I was a little kid and I was being manipulated," he said.

"I called all sorts of boys from the school. Many of the kids from the school had been abused and went on to abuse drugs, question their sexuality and have affairs. What we all shared was this sense of guilt and shame and darkness that has really followed all of us through our lives."

Hardwicke, who now operates a Web site about abuse that allegedly occurred at the school, said he decided to file a lawsuit against Hanson and the school largely because of how the abuse has continued to harm him.

"It's difficult to have as close a sexual relationship as I would like with my wife," he said. "Kissing my wife becomes difficult because of having been french-kissed by Mr. Hanson, and that was something that was very hard for me.

"It's just so pervasive in every aspect of my life."

Hardwicke's wife, Terri, is also a plaintiff in the case.-- -- --

Superior Court Judge Jack Sabatino ruled that Hardwick and Palmatier's claims against Hanson, the former choir director, could go forward.

But though Hanson was served with a copy of the suit in 2001 at his home in Canada, that was the last time anyone involved with the lawsuit has heard from or seen Hanson.

As a result, he could not be contacted for this story.

"We have no real hope of being able to pursue him for anything," Smith said. "We don't know exactly where he is."

When Sabatino ruled in January that Hardwicke's claims against the school could not go forward because the Charitable Immunity Act protects nonprofits like the school, "no matter how flagrant that conduct may be," it left the plaintiffs little choice but to appeal.

The immunity act, which dates to 1958, covers nonprofits organized for religious, charitable or educational purposes and only applies to those who are a beneficiary of the group.

Smith, Hardwick's lawyer, said yesterday the judge's decision was unfair because he rejected claims of negligence and other more aggressive charges such as assault and battery as well as false imprisonment that should be allowed to go forward.

The New Jersey Legislature amended the immunity act in 1995 to specifically exclude grossly negligent and willful acts from the protection.

"The trial court's interpretation of this case is too broad," Smith said.

The judge also ruled in a separate decision that the school could not be held liable under the state's Child Sexual Abuse Act because the facility was not classified as a person under the law.

"The logic that an entity can't be a guardian is flawed," Smith said. "It's clear even a common definition of person in the law certainly includes corporations."

Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor and former American Boychoir student, is expected to argue on behalf of Hardwicke and the other victims at today's hearing, and the constitutionality of the law is expected to come under fire.

It was unclear yesterday what the American Boychoir side will argue.

The school referred all inquiries from reporters to lawyer Jay Greenblatt, who declined to comment on the case.

Since the accounts of abuse were made public, the school has sent letters to alumni about the incidents and started a helpline staffed by a psychologist in hopes of encouraging victims to talk about their experiences. Other lawsuits with similar allegations have been settled.-- -- --

If Hardwicke and the other former choir students are not successful with the appeal today, there is a chance the state law could be changed by the Legislature.

There are now multiple bills pending that would narrow the scope of the law so childhood sex abuse victims could pursue cases.

But the bills haven't gone anywhere.

William Bolan, executive director of the state's Catholic Conference, said his group has strongly opposed the proposed changes.

"It's unfair to penalize the charitable employer where the flaw that gives rise to the sexual abuse is not discernible," Bolan said. "There exists no psychological testing that would identify a person with a proclivity for sexual abuse. You cannot put someone on a pedophile machine."

Bolan contends perpetrators should be held personally responsible for their actions, not the institutions that employ them.

"They have a right to get something from the person who did it to them - assuming they can prove it was done - not the employers," Bolan said. "Just because they can't find the perpetrator, that doesn't mean you can pick someone else."

State Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Lawrence, said she decided to sign on as co-sponsor of a bill to restrict the act after meeting with a constituent who was abused by a Catholic priest.

"Every organization, or institution for that matter, has to take a greater responsibility for protecting children," Turner said. "In doing so they need to do a thorough background check of the people they employ.

"I don't think the bill is a perfect bill. We have to have a balance between the rights of the victim and the rights of the accused."


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