Abuse Victim Tries to Pierce a Legal Shield
By Laura Mansnerus
The New York Times [Trenton NJ]
November 30, 2004
TRENTON, Nov. 29 - In a case brought by a man who says he was sexually abused as a pupil at a boarding school that tolerated pedophiles on its staff, the New Jersey Supreme Court was urged on Monday to revisit the legal protection of nonprofit organizations from negligence lawsuits.The case raises accusations against former staff members at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., that date from the 1970's. Some former students came forward years later, after the sexual abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests in Boston, to report abuse at the Boychoir School.
The case is aimed at bringing New Jersey into line with about 40 other states that have abandoned the doctrine of charitable immunity, which protects institutions from most lawsuits by people who were their beneficiaries. It carries potentially damaging consequences not only for the nationally renowned Boychoir School but also for the Catholic Church in New Jersey.
The lawyer for John W. Hardwicke Jr., who was enrolled at the Boychoir School as a 12-year-old in 1969, told the justices the school had "pervasive, institutionalized sexual abuse."
The lawyer, Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor, noted scholar on intellectual property law, and a former Boychoir School student himself, said that for two years Mr. Hardwicke "was repeatedly raped and sodomized by the choir director, the headmaster, the proctor, even by the cook."
Mr. Lessig urged the court to affirm the decision of its appellate division that the state's charitable immunity law does not excuse a school's duty of care to its students. The main opinion in the appellate division's decision said that "a child's fundamental right to bodily integrity cannot be found secondary to a charity's well-being."
But the school's lawyer, Jay H. Greenblatt, argued that it could not be held liable for the staff members' acts because they were outside the scope of their employment.
Officials at the school say that the main offender, the choirmaster, was fired after the first complaints in the early 1980's, and that it cannot present a defense now because none of the people involved can be found.
Mr. Greenblatt also argued that the school cannot be a "person" within the meaning of the state law Mr. Hardwicke is invoking. That law authorizes suits by child sexual abuse victims against a parent, caretaker "or other person standing in loco parentis within the household who knowingly permits" the abuse.
Mr. Hardwicke, a graphic artist who lives in Maryland, said after the arguments: "That the school can keep denying responsibility bothers me more than anything else."
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