Committee Moves to Debate Church Liability Immunity

By Terrence Dopp
The Express-Times
March 1, 2004

TRENTON -- After delaying action earlier this year on a bill to strip the Catholic Church of immunity in sexual abuse lawsuits, the state Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to revisit the proposal today.

In January, the panel stalled on a bill that would lift New Jersey's ban on suing nonprofit organizations -- a law known as the Charitable Immunity Act.

The law essentially exempts institutions such as religious groups and charities from being sued over the behavior of their employees.

Some lawmakers, spurred by the abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, are looking to amend the code in cases involving sex abuse of minors.

Like in other states, New Jersey churches have been hit by the scandal. So far, dioceses statewide have paid $12.7 million to settle abuse allegations.

New Jersey's diocesan officials have emphasized that almost all the alleged abuse took place more than 20 years ago.

"There has been a marked decline in allegations over the last decade, in part due to the preventive measures put into place by most dioceses including Camden in the early 1990s," said Andrew J. Walton, a spokesman for the Camden Diocese.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference plans to testify at the hearing today. Officials of the organization declined comment before then. The Catholic Conference is an umbrella group consisting of the state's dioceses of Camden, Metuchen, Newark, Paterson and Trenton, along with the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic and Our Lady of Deliverance Syrian Catholic Diocese.

Over a dozen victims of abuse testifying at the first hearing told committee members of being unable to sue.

The Judiciary Committee split in January over a provision in the new legislation making it retroactive, which would allow past victims to sue over abuse. Some on the panel asked for more time to study the bill's potential effect on the church.

Also Friday, the National Review Board, a lay group created by bishops, released reports documenting alleged sexual abuse in the church between 1950 and 2002.

According to the study prepared for the Catholic bishops by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, it was established that there were nearly 11,000 reports of abuse in that time and 4,392, or 4 percent, of all clerics who served in the period were accused of abuse.

"The terrible history recorded here today is history," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Terrence Dopp is Trenton correspondent for The Express-Times. He can be reached at 609-292-5154 or by e-mail at


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