More than 850 sexual abuse lawsuits have been filed as deadline approaches for past claims

TRENTON (NJ) [New Jersey]

November 12, 2021

By Ted Sherman

More than 40 years after a 15-year-old boy was reportedly sexually abused by the Rev. John Capparelli, the alleged victim filed a lawsuit in Essex County Superior Court against the Archdiocese of Newark and the church where the disgraced, defrocked priest — who was murdered in 2019 — once served.

The plaintiff in the case, not identified by name, spoke of being raised in a devout Catholic family and participating in youth and church activities at Holy Trinity Church in Westfield, before ultimately becoming a victim to what was described only as “unpermitted sexual contact.”

It is just one of hundreds of civil lawsuits that have been filed in New Jersey since the state opened a two-year window that greatly extended the amount of time victims of sexual abuse had to sue.

And now, that window is closing. At the end of the month, a two-year extension allowing such lawsuits on decades-old allegations comes to an end.

Advocates, however, say the COVID pandemic has made it difficult for victims to meet with attorneys and build their cases and have called for more time to allow others to seek justice.

“The pandemic closed our courts for some time and it delayed in many ways the statewide investigation of the five Catholic Dioceses in New Jersey,” said Mark Crawford, a clergy abuse survivor and state leader of SNAP — Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The New Jersey law, passed in 2019 and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, waived the statute of limitations to sue under a 24-month time period ending on Nov. 30, 2021. The law also allowed adults who were assaulted as children to file civil suits until they turn 55, or seven years after they discover that they were abused. It targeted not only individuals who allegedly committed sexual assault, but the churches, athletic organizations, schools and community organizations for whom they had worked.

Since it took effect, 880 cases involving individuals with claims that would have been time barred but for the new law have been filed through Sept. 30, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Most of those cases, 62.2%, named a cleric and/or religious institution as a defendant. Schools accounted for 15.5% of the lawsuits and the Boy Scouts of America was named in 11.3% of the cases.

State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who championed the legislation despite years of pushback, said those numbers should be much higher, and said the window for filing civil lawsuits should stay open.

“It should be extended, but I don’t know if it can be done without legislation,” he observed of the current filing deadline. “It’s not an issue that’s been at the forefront.”

The Murphy administration expressed its support of such a move.

“Gov. Murphy believes that victims of sexual assault should be able to seek justice. He is open to working with the Legislature to extend the filing period contained in the New Jersey Child Victims Act,” said spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro.

CHILD USA, a nonprofit organization that tracks such legislation, said 24 states, along with Washington D.C., and Guam, have windows similar to New Jersey’s that gave the opportunity to file child sex abuse claims that otherwise would have been blocked as a result of statute of limitations laws. Some, including California Delaware, Hawaii, and New York, later extended those windows, or reopened them.

New York, for example, originally had a 1-year window that opened in 2019, a few months before New Jersey’s window opened. Lawmakers extended that window last year because of the pandemic and the resulting court closures.