Adult Victims of Child Sex Abuse Push for N.J. Law Eliminating Statute of Limitations
By Terrence T. McDonald
The Jersey Journal
January 9, 2012
|In this undated photo, Mark Crawford, center, is shown with Father Ken Martin, his alleged molester, and two of his younger brothers.|
Mark Crawford says he felt like a prisoner.
Crawford grew up on Lexington Avenue in Bayonne, blocks from St. Andrew the Apostle Church, where his family worshipped. When he was in seventh grade, the congregation welcomed a new priest: the Rev. Ken Martin.
Martin quickly befriended Crawford's large, devoutly Catholic family, according to Crawford.
"He took a very keen interest in me," he said. "Showered me with gifts."
The relationship grew. Martin was a railroad enthusiast and had a large model train in the rectory, which fascinated the train-obsessed Crawford. With Crawford's parents' permission, the two went on a month-long trip -- partly by train -- to Colorado in August 1976 when he was 13 years old.
Crawford said he woke up one night on the train to find the priest fondling him.
"He said, 'This is normal when people love each other,'" Crawford said. "I was confused, scared."
The abuse continued -- sometimes up to four times a week -- for the next few years, according to Crawford. No one in his family suspected, he said.
"I really felt like a prisoner," he said. "I really did."
Crawford, now 49 and living in Woodbridge with his wife and children, is one of two Hudson County men who has been crusading for years to get the state to erase its two-year statute of limitations on sex-abuse victims suing their abusers in civil court.
The bill -- S2405 -- was unanimously approved by a state Senate committee last year, and sat dormant until recently. Last week, in the waning days of the Legislature's 2010-2011 session, an Assembly committee approved its own version.
Today is the last day the bill can be voted on in this session.
The Jersey Journal attempted to contact Martin -- whom Crawford named during his January 2004 testimony in front of the state Senate about the bill -- but could not find his address or phone number. Crawford said he's not positive where Martin lives now.
Keith Rennar, a Bayonne resident who has gone public with his story of alleged abuse at the hands of two men out of St. Paul's Church in Jersey City, said he is baffled by the delay in changing the law.
"I don't understand what could possibly be the problem," Rennar said.
Like Crawford, Rennar -- whose legal name is Keith Brennan -- was also raised in a "devoutly Catholic" household, he said.
The family, who lived on Neptune Avenue in Jersey City, attended nearby St. Paul's. Rennar joined the church's folk group in his early teens. The musical director was a 17-year-old named Keith Pecklers.
"He pretty much singled me out at some point," Rennar said. The abuse began in 1976, when Rennar was 14 and Pecklers had just turned 18, he said. It went on for about a year, until Rennar confided in the church deacon, Tom Stamford, Rennar said.
"I thought I could trust him," he said.
Instead, Stamford started abusing the boy, plying him with drugs and alcohol, Rennar said. The abuse continued for about two years, he said.
Rennar, a fashion designer who owns a Bayonne clothing store with his wife, recounted the story of his alleged abuse to a state Senate committee last year. No one but his family had ever heard his story.
"I thought I was the only one, so I never, ever spoke about it," said Rennar, who has since made a documentary, "Of God and Gucci," about his alleged abuse.
Crawford, who alleges that his younger brother was abused by Martin as well, said he couldn't bring himself to tell anyone until at least his early adulthood.
That's why it's so important to allow victims of sex abuse more than two years to seek justice, the two men said. It can take years, even decades, for some victims to even admit to themselves what happened, they said.
"People deserve their day in court," Crawford said.
Pecklers, now a prominent Jesuit scholar, did not respond to an email requesting comment. As with Martin, The Jersey Journal attempted to contact Stamford, to no avail.
The Archdiocese of Newark declined to comment on Crawford's and Rennar's allegations.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
New Jersey's statute of limitations for sex-abuse victims is a tiny window compared to those in neighboring states.
In New York, victims of childhood sex abuse have until the age of 23 to file suit. In Pennsylvania, victims have until they are 30, and in Connecticut, victims have 30 years to sue. Delaware has no limit.
Catholic officials in New Jersey are opposed to New Jersey's bill, believing it is aimed squarely at the Catholic Church, according to Patrick Brannigan, executive director of New Jersey Catholic Conference and spokesman for state Catholic bishops on public-policy matters.
Judges already have the option of waiving the statute of limitations, Brannigan noted. Erasing the statute permanently would eliminate the role of judges as "gatekeepers," and would allow possibly groundless suits to move forward, he said.
"While the elimination of the statute of limitations would be extraordinarily remunerative for trial attorneys, it wouldn't protect a single child," Brannigan said.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, the Middlesex County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said Brannigan's comments are an example of the Catholic Church's "ongoing lies and denial."
A judge could waive the statute of limitations, Vitale told The Jersey Journal, but that requires a hearing that would represent, Vitale believes, an "unfair hurdle" for victims. The proposed legislation doesn't force judges or juries to side with victims, he noted.
"It just lets them in the courtroom," Vitale said.
Tomorrow is the first day of the Legislature's 2012-13 session, which makes today the deadline for S2405 to pass, or else it must work its way through the legislative process once more.
Vitale told The Jersey Journal last week that the bill would likely be posted for a vote today, but his office confirmed with Rennar on Friday that the bill was not on the list of bills set for approval.
Even if the Legislature passes the bill today, Gov. Chris Christie would have to sign it for it to become law.
Christie's office told The Star-Ledger last December that the governor will take "a close look" at the legislation to make sure it passes constitutional muster.
Both Rennar and Crawford stress that they don't stand to gain by the legislation. Rennar said he's already received a six-figure settlement from the Archdiocese.
Crawford says he's interested only in accountability for sex offenders and the institution that he says covered up their crimes.
"So much has been hidden in darkness, and it must be told," he said.