Outdated N.J. Law Ensures That Clergy Sex-abuse Survivors Cannot Pursue Justice | Opinion
By Patricia Teffenhart
September 7, 2018
The formation of a task force this week by the Attorney General's Office to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy is an important step in the right direction for New Jersey.
But we cannot stop here.
As the #MeToo movement converges with continued reports of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, it's time for us to acknowledge that some of New Jersey's outdated laws ensure many survivors still won't be able to pursue justice -- making it impossible to hold those who have committed such heinous acts accountable.
New Jersey is an ugly outlier in the nation -- since 2002, when the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series shone a light on institutional child sexual abuse, 80 percent of states have made changes to their statutes of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse.
The Garden State has made no changes.
As a frame of reference, it's important to note that New Jersey has no criminal statute of limitations for rape, which means survivors can pursue a criminal case at any point.
Given what we know about how trauma affects the brain, this is beneficial for survivors -- and public safety. However, victims of sexual assault who are seeking to access the civil justice system have just two years to come forward under our state's narrow and restrictive civil statute of limitations. (By way of comparison, New Jersey has a six-year civil statute of limitations for trespassing.)
To many of us, two years may sound like plenty of time to pursue justice. But it's been well-documented that the traumatic impact of this crime can cause significant delays in reporting -- particularly for survivors of sexual abuse during childhood. A 2014 German study, for example, highlighted that the average age of callers reporting clergy abuse to a national hotline was 52.2 years -- many, many years after their childhood victimizations.
Similar data has been compiled from studies in Australia and the United States. What these reports affirm, is what we know to be true: reckoning with the after-effects of a traumatic and violent crime takes time. By the time many survivors discover they would've had the option to pursue civil action, the clock has run out.
For years, our state has failed to pass common-sense, trauma-informed civil statute reform.
Lobbying by the Church and other institutions has thwarted such efforts and increased harm to not only those who have been victimized by the Church, but has denied ALL survivors the opportunity to hold their perpetrators accountable.
We continue to urge legislators to pass S477/A3648, which would finally remove the civil statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse. We cannot lose sight of advancing real change that both expands opportunities for justice in the future and provides a window of opportunity for those previously harmed, but who were denied access to civil remedies under our state's current law.
We stand with those who remain committed to expanding the principles of justice and accountability in New Jersey. It should never be #TooLate to hold rapists accountable.