Sex-Abuse Victims Say N.J. Tough on Claims

By Pete McAleer
The Press of Atlantic City [Trenton NJ]
Downloaded March 15, 2003

TRENTON - New Jersey may have been the first state to pass Megan's Law to make the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders known, but the leading advocacy group for the victims of clergy abuse says the state is behind the curve in supporting measures to punish abusive priests who have avoided prosecution for decades.

The Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests, or SNAP, plans to lobby New Jersey officials on several fronts. The group is holding a regional meeting in Mercer County this morning. Among those expected to attend is acting Attorney General Peter Harvey.

The group is expected to ask Harvey to consider using grand jury powers to force open church files that they say have been kept secret for decades. The group will also push lawmakers to move on bills that would allow victims to pursue criminal and civil actions against alleged perpetrators.

While grand juries investigating clergy-abuse cases have convened in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and at least nine other states, New Jersey relies on a "memorandum of understanding" which trusts the state's seven Roman Catholic dioceses to come forward with any evidence regarding sex-abuse crimes committed by its clergy.

A bill that would remove the statute of limitations for civil suits involving the sexual abuse of a minor - now law in California - cannot even get a hearing in Trenton.

New Jersey's statute of limitations - which allows two years from the date of the alleged offense or until the plaintiff's 20th birthday to file suit - is one of the strictest in the country.

New Jersey is also one of four states that allows the Charitable Immunities Act to be used as a defense in sexual-abuse lawsuits. The law prevents members of nonprofit groups from suing their own organizations.

A bill that attempts to prevent charitable groups from using the law as a shield for sex offenders has languished in the New Jersey Senate for four years without being posted for a vote in the Judiciary Committee, chaired by state Sen. William Gormley, R-Atlantic, and state Sen. John Adler, D-Camden.

The acting attorney general said Friday that he remains open to the possibility of convening a statewide grand jury, but only for the purpose of pursuing indictments that would not be barred under the statute of limitations.

"Depending on the information, we will pursue it," Harvey said. "If we're not getting information (from the church) that we think is available or if we're facing obstacles, then it's a tool we will use."

John Haggerty, spokesman for the Department of Criminal Justice, said it is unfair to compare New Jersey to other states. Pennsylvania, Haggerty said, can use its grand jury as an investigating tool. New Jersey must use grand juries strictly to pursue indictments.

"We can't use grand juries to conduct fishing expeditions," Haggerty said.

Harvey offered no opinion on the statute of limitations or charitable immunity bills pending in the Legislature. The governor's office also declined comment.

Throughout the country, statewide grand juries have convened and returned with new evidence of sexual abuse that went unreported by the church. In New Jersey, the state's seven dioceses gave authorities the names of more than 100 priests accused of abuse. But the statute of limitations prevented criminal charges from being filed in any of those cases.

Still, Harvey said he sees progress from the "memorandum of understanding" reached last year. The agreement, he said, helped set up a dialogue that played a role in the recent settlements of sexual-abuse claims in the Metuchen and Camden dioceses.

The Camden Diocese - which vigorously fought a class-action sex-abuse lawsuit for nine years - agreed Thursday to pay $880,000 to settle the cases of 23 plaintiffs.

In January, the Metuchen Diocese paid $800,000 to settle sex-abuse claims against five priests. Among those priests was Monsignor Michael Cashman of Woodbury, a former spiritual advisor to Gov. James E. McGreevey who delivered the benediction when McGreevey was sworn into office.

Cashman's attorney vehemently denies the abuse allegations.

It is difficult, however, to view the settlements as a victory for the plaintiffs. Those who filed suit in the Camden Diocese - many of whom claimed they were sexually assaulted for years - collected a fraction of the sum they originally sought.

But they risked collecting nothing. Six of the plaintiffs had already seen their cases dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

SNAP Regional Director Mark Serrano said the statute should not apply for sex crimes because the mental damage suffered by victims often prevents them from coming forward until later in life.

Many of the plaintiffs in the Camden Diocese case made their allegations to church leaders in the mid-1980's. Philip Young - who saw his case dismissed because of the statute of limitations - visited with Camden Bishop George Guilfoyle in 1986. Young testified that Guilfoyle told him the perpetrator would be removed from the ministry. He said Guilfoyle also told him not to go to authorities.

Guilfoyle died in 1991.

Years later, Young found out that the priest he had accused was still active in a Florida parish.

"The way these priests prey on children, it puts you in a tailspin and you don't know what to do," Young said. "I would just like the opportunity to go and explain why the law needs to be passed."

Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, introduced a bill last year that would prevent the statute of limitations from being used to bar future claims. That bill has yet to be posted in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, and the chairman of the committee, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, did not return a phone call to her office.

Two weeks ago, Cohen added a new bill modeled after a California law that places a one-year moratorium on the statute of limitations for sex-abuse crimes. Cohen said priests who are guilty of abusing children should not go unpunished simply because the church hid their crimes decades ago.

"Anyone else would be in jail, pending trial and a $1 million bail," Cohen said. "It's a sad commentary on our system. But there will come a time and day when this bill will move. I hope it's sooner rather than later."

Serrano said SNAP will keep pushing lawmakers to support Cohen's bill. Today's meeting, he said, marks a key step in that effort.

"All we need is for prosecutors and lawmakers to demonstrate the moral leadership that bishops are lacking," Serrano said. "Most of us have waited our entire adult lives for justice. As anxious as we are, we will commit ourselves to changes in law regardless of how long it takes."

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