Senate Considers Retroactivity for Bill Ending Charitable Immunity

By Pete McAleer
The Press of Atlantic City [Trenton NJ]
January 27, 2004

TRENTON - A state Senate committee plans to move forward with a bill that prevents nonprofit groups from using the Charitable Immunity Act as a shield against sex-abuse lawsuits, but first it must decide whether to make the bill retroactive so that old cases can be reopened.

The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a vote on the bill Monday after listening to testimony from men who said the law barred them from filing lawsuits seeking compensation for damage done to them when they were sexually abused as children.

Committee Chairman John Adler, D-Camden, promised the bill would be voted on in March. He said the majority of the committee supports eliminating charitable immunity as a defense in future sex-abuse cases, "but we're not yet set with retroactivity."

"We're going to discuss it again, and we're going to vote it out of the committee," Adler said.

New Jersey is one of nine states that shield nonprofit groups - such as churches, schools and the Boy Scouts - from lawsuits filed by one of their members. Although class-action lawsuits have still been filed against nonprofit groups in sex-abuse cases, the plaintiffs are often limited to suing only the alleged abusers and not the institution that hired them.

A class-action sex-abuse lawsuit brought against the Camden Diocese of the Catholic Church was dismissed in Superior Court because of the statute of limitations. The diocese later settled out of court.

Other lawsuits have been shot down because of the Charitable Immunity Act, which was adopted in 1958 to protect nonprofit groups from hefty legal judgments that might threaten their stability.

"We were abandoned in New Jersey by laws that weigh the good works of a charity ahead of a child's right to be safe," said John Hardwicke, whose lawsuit against the American Boychoir School was dismissed 30 years ago because of charitable immunity.

"Our children should not be made collateral damage for a greater good," Hardwicke said.

Bill sponsor Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, said the Catholic Church - which has fought to keep Charitable Immunity in the past - will support eliminating the shield for future sex-abuse cases. Vitale argued that by not allowing the bill to work retroactively would set two standards of law. He said the church's contention that it would be hit with "a waterfall of lawsuits" is both overstated and beside the point.

"This is about justice for kids," Vitale said.

Mark Crawford, who approached Vitale in 1999 about sponsoring an amendment to the charitable immunity law, said he was "terribly disappointed" by Monday's postponement.

"I absolutely expected it to pass the committee today," Crawford said.

Yet even if the Charitable Immunity Act were made retroactive and signed into law tomorrow, the lawsuits filed by those who testified Monday would still be barred. The statute of limitations law in New Jersey gives victims of sexual assault two years from the discovery of their abuse - or until their 20th birthday - to file a claim. That means only those younger than 20 who saw their suit dismissed because of charitable immunity would benefit from the bill being made retroactive.

"I stand to gain nothing from the passage of this bill," said Richard Schultz, of Emerson. "My time in court is over."

But Schultz told the committee his story anyway, asking the committee to correct a longtime injustice. Schultz and his brother Christopher were sexually abused in the late 1970s by Brother Edmund Coakley, a scout teacher employed by the Archdiocese of Newark. Schultz's brother was 12 when he committed suicide.

The state Supreme Court, by split decision, dismissed a civil suit brought by the Schultz family in 1984. One of the court justices noted that "perhaps the time has come for the Legislature to consider again the scope of the law and its intended application."

"I submit to you that the time has indeed come and that each of you has a duty to pass this bill and help insure its passage," Schultz told the Judiciary Committee.

Child psychologist William Alanson said changing the Charitable Immunity Act to allow sex-abuse claims would bring a measure of respect to all victims, whether they get their day in court.

"These men and women were abused as children by sexual predators, and then again by the institutions who countenanced the abuse," Alanson said. "Please make sure the state of New Jersey does not hurt them yet again by continuing to protect charitable institutions in this way."

To e-mail Pete McAleer at The Press.


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