|Victims of Alleged N.J. Priest Child Abuse Push to Eliminate Statute of Limitations against Claims
By Mark Mueller
December 16, 2011
The lawsuit Richard Fitter filed in Superior Court in Newark Wednesday is almost certainly doomed to fail.
Fitter knows that. The statute of limitations on his claim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest has long since passed. But the 45-year-old Montclair man wanted to make a point.
"He’s never been held accountable," Fitter said of the Rev. John Capparelli, the man who allegedly groped him repeatedly in the early 1980s. "Without a change in the law, people like me will never be able to truly seek justice and expose pedophiles like the man who abused me."
Thursday, Fitter brought that message to Trenton, where he and other advocates urged lawmakers to act on a stalled bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations entirely in civil cases alleging childhood sexual abuse.
After a news conference outside the Statehouse, Fitter hand-delivered letters to the offices of Gov. Chris Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). The letter asked the legislative leaders for their support in passage of the bill, which was introduced late last year.
As it now stands, New Jersey’s law is among the more restrictive in the nation, allowing lawsuits to be filed for up to two years after a childhood victim turns 18.
Older victims can bring suits within two years of "reasonably discovering" the connection between the abuse and the emotional damage it caused, but the hurdles established by the state Supreme Court in such cases make it "very, very difficult, if not impossible" to make it to trial, said Fitter’s lawyer, Greg Gianforcaro.
The advocates’ appeal comes as many states move to expand or abolish their own statutes of limitations in civil sex abuse cases. The issue also has taken on added resonance with the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities, where coaches are alleged to have sexually abused boys as long as two decades ago.
Mark Crawford, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, compared Fitter’s predicament to the situations faced by some of the alleged victims at Penn State in that they’re barred from suing because the statute of limitations had passed.
"People who have been abused are dealing with a range of issues," Crawford said. "Some have post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re under great stress. It’s very difficult to get your wits together and speak to anyone about it, much less a lawyer. Two years is far too short."
Fitter, a personal trainer and fitness writer, contends in his lawsuit that Capparelli touched him in a sexual manner numerous times in 1982 and 1983, when he was a teenager. At the time, Capparelli was a math teacher at the Oratory Preparatory School in Summit.
Fitter was among several teens Capparelli hand-picked to take part in "submission" wrestling matches. He contends the priest insisted the young wrestlers wear skimpy, tight-fitting bathing suits and photographed the encounters for his own gratification. He said Capparelli also took part in the matches.
The alleged abuse, Fitter said, led to years of nightmares and emotional upheaval, for which he sought therapy. He became a competitive bodybuilder and power-lifter, in part, to ensure no one could overpower him again, he said.
"I didn’t want anyone to hurt me anymore," he said. "I wanted to protect myself."
Amid claims of inappropriate contact with boys, Capparelli was suspended from ministry by the Archdiocese of Newark 1992, though he has not been removed from the priesthood.
That same year, he was hired as a public school teacher in Newark. The district removed him from the classroom and placed him in an administrative position last month following two Star-Ledger reports about Capparelli’s past.
Fitter’s lawsuit, which also names the Archdiocese of Newark as a defendant, is the second against Capparelli. In June, a 48-year-old Somerset County man, Andrew Dundorf, made similar claims. Dundorf attended Thursday’s press conference to show his support for Fitter and to urge the Legislature to pass the statute of limitations measure.
The Senate bill, S2405, was approved with unanimous, bipartisan support by the judiciary committee last December but was then referred to the Senate budget committee, where it remains.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), said Thursday he’s evaluating the measure and considering whether to put it up for a committee vote Jan. 5.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), said he’s not certain why it was referred to the budget committee, but he said he’s hopeful it will receive a vote early next month.
"I don’t think it’s lost support," Vitale said, calling the statute of limitations "ridiculously short."
A spokesman for Sweeney said the Senate president takes the issue "very seriously" and will ensure the measure gets a "thorough and adequate review."
Oliver’s spokesman, Tom Hester Jr., said the Assembly speaker hopes to meet with Fitter to hear his story.
"The speaker certainly recognizes this as a serious issue," Hester said.
An Assembly version of the bill, A3622, is awaiting a vote in the Assembly judiciary committee.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.