Catholic Church Supports Immunity Act

By Karen Ayres
The Times [New Jersey]
September 28, 2004

New Jersey's Catholic bishops want their say in a sexual abuse case filed by a former student against the American Boychoir School that is set to be heard by the state Supreme Court.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference has filed legal papers with the court in support of the Charitable Immunity Act that currently protects certain institutions from such cases.

Though the case over alleged abuse at the elite Princeton Township music school doesn't involve the Catholic Church, the ruling could have far-reaching implications for abuse cases against the church and other groups statewide.

John Hardwicke, who is suing the school over claims he was abused some 30 years ago as a student, said the conference filed the brief to protect people who abused children.

"The most important thing is that I have nothing but a great deal of respect for the Catholic Church," Hardwicke said. "But I can't imagine they have any interest in this case (except) to protect people who molested children."

William Bolan, the conference's director, said he and his lawyer have no comment on the amicus curiae - or friend of the court - brief filed last month.

The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after an appeals court questioned the constitutionality of the immunity provision and decided Hardwicke should be allowed to go forward with a lawsuit against the school.

The former student contends he was subjected to daily sexual abuse when he was a student about 30 years ago.

In a lower court ruling, Hardwicke and another former student were barred from pursuing the case because of charitable immunity, which was designed to allow donations to be used for charitable work rather than litigation. The other student has since settled his case.

The conference argues that the appeals court was misguided when it determined there were constitutional concerns over the immunity law.

"The immunity provided by the Charitable Immunity Act is of importance to the Conference, and questions as to the Act's constitutionality are of obvious concern," the brief states.

The central point of debate involves both the Child Sexual Abuse Act, which dictates liability for those who knowingly allow abuse to minors, and the Immunity Act.

The appeals court ruled the school could be held liable under the Sexual Abuse Act because the facility acted as the students' household during the time of the alleged abuse.

The conference argues that the provision only covers specific individuals, not schools or other organizations.

After deciding the school could be held liable, the appeals court then decided the immunity protection act raised "serious constitutional concerns."

Keith Smith, Hardwicke's lawyer, said he doesn't believe the issue over whether the school served as Hardwicke's household will apply in any cases filed against the church.

"I know the Catholic Conference and the school want to raise fears that this is somehow going to open the floodgates of litigation, but I think those fears are misplaced," Smith said.

Jay Greenblatt, a lawyer for the American Boychoir School, said he doesn't object to the Supreme Court's decision to allow the conference to file a brief in the case, noting the decision will have great influence over other cases.

Greenblatt said earlier this month the Supreme Court had not yet set a date to hear the American Boychoir case.

Hardwicke said he doesn't believe charities should be protected in cases of abuse.

"Just because they do good things doesn't mean they should be allowed to get away with criminal behavior," Hardwicke said.

Hardwicke is set to appear on an upcoming episode of the Montel show hosted by Montel Williams to discuss his experiences.

The Maryland resident testified before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year to support a bill that would eliminate the Immunity Act as it relates to child sexual abuse cases. The measure is pending.

The Catholic Conference has also objected to those legal changes.

The conference's legal brief notes that the church has instituted measures to protect children from abuse. Still, the conference contends the immunity provision is important.

"Society has reacted to recent revelations of past incidents of child sexual abuse with understandable outrage," the brief states. "In such times, one is entitled to look to the courts to maintain the rule of law free of the passions - no matter how explainable and understandable they might be - of the time.

"When courts are mere cymbals of the moment, the silence of embarrassed failure eventually comes to accompany their decisions. When, however, courts are willing to place the rule of law above the passions of the moment, then one of the judiciary's most important functions is properly served."


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