Bill Would Let Abuse Victims Sue Nonprofits

By Tom Bell
Associated Press, carried in Philadelphia Inquirer [Trenton NJ]
Downloaded March 2, 2004

TRENTON - Sex abuse victims would be able to seek damages from churches and other nonprofit organizations under the terms of a bill approved yesterday by a Senate committee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee added an amendment that would make the change apply retroactively, meaning that those victimized before the date it would become law could also file lawsuits.

Existing New Jersey law, known as the charitable-immunity statute, prohibits any civil action against a church or charitable organization. New Jersey is one of nine states that still have such a law.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex) said the climate for change could be right following the release of reports last week that documented sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests nationwide from 1950 to 2002. One of the reports found there were 10,667 abuse claims during that period.

"It's because of the church sex scandal that we're here today," Vitale said.

Last month the Senate committee heard testimony from men who said they had been sexually abused as children by priests and adults in other organizations. They said they had no legal recourse because of the charitable-immunity law.

The committee did not hear additional testimony yesterday, but a large crowd gathered at the hearing to support the legislation cheered after it passed.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The legislation has not yet been introduced in the Assembly.

Vitale said it would probably meet some resistance in the Senate, despite bipartisan support for it in the committee.

"It's not going to be an easy road," Vitale said. "I expect it to have some opposition."

A similar bill was introduced in the last legislative session but stalled.


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