Eliminate the statute that helps child abusers | Editorial

nj.com [New Jersey]

December 2, 2021

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

Since Gov. Murphy signed a 2019 law that suspended the statute of limitations for civil sex abuse lawsuits for two years, more than 1,200 cases were filed — two-thirds of them against clergy or a religious institution.

A window to justice opened, and the people who had spent years or decades harboring an unfathomable pain stepped through it.

But the deadline for those victims to file suit ended Tuesday, and examination of the available data makes this much clear: The suspension of the statute needs to be extended, and our lawmakers should consider waiving it entirely.

Victims of abuse need time to decide whether they can share their experience. That’s why the bill championed by Senator Joe Vitale was crucial, because the previous window for civil action in our state was preposterous: Victims had to bring civil suits before they turned 20 or within two years from the time they connected their trauma to the abuse.

That’s why one examination of these lawsuits filed during this two-year window is revealing. The Record reports that 80% are based on allegations that took place between 1960 and 1990. Only 40 are related to incidents that occurred after 1990.

The sexual predation of children didn’t attenuate after 1990.

So to close the window on civil suits now is arbitrary and cruel. How many more ghastly stories — like those beach house attacks on children by serial abuser Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, since defrocked — remain untold?

“There are literally thousands of victims who have not come forward and never will, no matter what. And that’s retrospectively and prospectively,” Vitale said.

“So I think extending the window on filing lawsuits is appropriate, because there are more victims out there. They deserve more time, and time should be on their side — not on the side of their rapists.”

CEO Marci Hamilton of Child USA, the child protection advocate, agrees that New Jersey should leave the window open permanently, as they do in Vermont and Maine.

“So many are left behind, because psychologically and physically they are incapable of coming forward, or there are pressures in their lives that compel them to keep their secrets,” Hamilton said. “I know so many victims who will not come forward before their parents have passed — they won’t put them through it.

“The real cruelty of a statute of limitations is that there’s a deadline. But also, the public needs this information — whether the abuse occurred 60 years ago or last year — and we need to understand how this epidemic grew.”

Or, as Mark Crawford of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) put it, “In France, they just named 2,500 clergy members that abused 213,000 children. It’s a safe bet that there are many more unknown victims here (in New Jersey) that deserve justice.”

A spokeswoman for Murphy told NJ.com recently that the governor is “open to working with the Legislature to extend the filing period contained in the New Jersey Child Victims Act.”

That’s an encouraging endorsement. We have given some victims a small opportunity to hold their abusers and the institutions who protected them accountable. But there is no expiration date on transparency and justice, which is attainable only in a court of law.