To protect N.J.'s kids, Senate must expand statute of limitations on sex abuse lawsuits | Opinion

By Mai Fernandez
June 9, 2015

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) has proposed a bill calling to expand the statue of limitations involving child sex abuse lawsuits.

Imagine living in a state ranked in the bottom half of the country in protecting victims of child sexual abuse and letting molesters off the hook. Believe it or not, if New Jersey is your home, you live in such a state, according to an analysis of all 50 states by This doesn't have to be the case. New Jersey should be leading the charge on this issue.

According to data from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, one in five girls and one in 20 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. In more than half those cases, the child was abused by a trusted person, such as a family member, an athletic coach or a scoutmaster. Despite the prevalence, up to 90 percent of the cases are never reported.

It often takes years or even decades for victims to acknowledge, let alone discuss, their horrifying experience. Victims of childhood sexual abuse tend to suppress awareness of the abuse; they have a hard time connecting their dysfunction as adults to the abuse they suffered as children; and when they finally realize the connection, they have to gather the courage to act. Unfortunately, at that point, New Jersey law puts the burden on them by requiring that they prove why they didn't sue earlier.

Adults victimized as children in New Jersey only have two years to file civil suit from the time they first realize the sexual abuse damaged them. This small and inadequate window fails to account for the psychological scars and trauma that interfere with victims' ability to remember the abuse, realize its effect and come forward. Many states have adopted bills that significantly lengthen or even discard statutes of limitations for sexual abuse claims, and many other states are considering such legislation.

Sen. Joe Vitale, a Middlesex County Democrat, is trying to change this by leading the effort to bring decency and good sense to our state – not to mention protecting children from sexual abuse. His proposed legislation will significantly expand the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse from two years to 30 years, providing victims sufficient time to sue perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them. Incredibly, despite the bill's bipartisan sponsorship by several influential senators, a similar bill stalled in the Senate in 2012 and this year Senate leadership has yet to agree to a simple yes or no vote.

Institutions that enable sexual predators have been lobbying tenaciously to prevent the bill's passage, as they did in 2012 when Sen. Vitale first proposed the bill. They seek to avoid responsibility for failing to protect the children placed in their care. How is it that a bill intended to serve such vulnerable and innocent victims is so obviously being stalled?

The ability to pursue civil damages against an abuser and the abuser's organization is not usually about money. It's about justice, healing prevention and closure. Not all sexual abuse crimes are criminally prosecuted (most older ones are not), and thus a civil suit may be a victim's only means of obtaining justice. Moreover, a civil suit protects all children by holding institutions accountable for protecting the children placed in their care.


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