Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Last Taboo

By Leslie Garisto Pfaff
New Jersey Monthly
May 10, 2017

Fred Marigliano remembers afternoons in the Times Square movie theater when his conscious mind would separate from his body, float to the ceiling, and look down on the shadowy row of seats where Father Contardo Omarini, his parish priest, was sexually assaulting two preteen boys. One of those boys was Marigliano himself. Later, long after the years of abuse had ended, he learned that this state of dissociation was a normal response to stress that otherwise might be unendurable. As a kid in Plainfield, though, he wondered if he might be going crazy.

Today, at 69, Marigliano, now a resident of Green Brook, tells the story of his three years of repeated abuse with remarkable equilibrium. But for decades he didn’t talk about it at all, his silence imposed by fear, guilt and shame. It wasn’t until his own kids were in their preteen years and Omarini phoned to say he’d like to meet them that Marigliano admitted the abuse to his parents and his wife. (Omarini, who died in 1995, was never charged in any abuse case.)

Marigliano is not an outlier in hiding his abuse. In fact, the harm inflicted by childhood sexual abuse persists well beyond the crime itself. Without treatment, victims can experience a lifetime of depression, anxiety, or both. They can find it hard to establish or sustain long-term relationships, and they’re particularly vulnerable to addiction, alcoholism and suicide.

It’s not unusual for those abused as children to keep the crimes committed against them secret for years. While men and women suffer these repercussions more or less equally, abuse also leads many men to question their masculinity, a state of affairs that makes speaking out particularly difficult.

“The sexual abuse and exploitation of men is really our last taboo in this country,” says Keith Rennar Brennan of Bayonne, who claims he was repeatedly abused as a child. The crime is also startlingly widespread, affecting one in six men, according to the nonprofit National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Currently, New Jersey victims of sexual abuse have only two years in which to file a civil suit after they first recognize a connection between their abuse and profound personal problems like depression, anxiety, PTSD, divorce and addiction. But the law doesn’t take into account how difficult it is for victims of this particular crime to come forward. In addition to suffering fear and shame, says Keith Smith, author of the sexual-abuse memoir Men in My Town, many male victims “feel complicit in their own abuse.”

Since 2010, survivors of abuse and their supporters have been fighting for passage of a bill that would remove the state’s two-year statute of limitations. Given the reticence of men to come out about their abuse (which is not to say that women find it easy) and the near-universal horror with which child sexual abuse is regarded in our culture, you’d think such legislation would be a cinch to pass. It’s been anything but.

The latest version of the bill in question, S280 (known in the Assembly as A865), had its genesis in 1999, when Mark Crawford, now director of the New Jersey chapter of the support organization Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), approached Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge) about doing away with the statute of limitations. Like Marigliano, Crawford had been abused by his parish priest for many years. In 1983, at 19, he’d met with Newark bishop Jerome Pechillo and Frank McNulty, then vicar of priests in the Newark Archdiocese, and told them about his abuse, expecting that they would report it to law enforcement. To his knowledge, no action was taken at the time.

Sixteen years later, in 1999, Crawford picked up a newspaper and saw a photo of his alleged abuser, then a hospital chaplain, posing with Newark archbishop Theodore McCarrick and a group of children. “I was infuriated,” Crawford remembers. When he met with Vitale, he told him, “This is wrong. They’ve lied to me over and over again, and this guy’s still in ministry; he’s still a threat. The laws have to change.” (It wasn’t until 2002, Crawford says, that the church reported his story of abuse to the police; by then, it was too late for legal action. According to a report in the Star-Ledger, the offending priest resigned from the ministry that year and later became a conductor for NJ Transit.)

Crawford believes that until the church and other powerful organizations can be more widely held legally accountable, those institutions will continue to aid and abet abusers in the interest of protecting their own reputations. With Crawford’s support, Vitale focused first on changing the law that gave charitable organizations immunity in civil cases. In 2006, the Charitable Immunity Act was amended to exclude cases of sexual abuse.

Then, in 2010, Vitale and fellow senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) introduced bill S2405, aiming to repeal the statute of limitations in civil cases involving sexual abuse. While there are no such limitations on filing criminal sexual abuse cases in New Jersey, criminal cases become increasingly difficult to prosecute the longer a victim waits to file. That’s because essential evidence—fingerprints, DNA, eyewitness testimony—tends to disappear over time. Civil cases, on the other hand, have a lower standard of proof; they require only that a plaintiff show it was more likely than not that the defendant caused the alleged harm. Given that many sexual-abuse victims can’t speak out early enough to file a criminal case, their only hope for justice in the Garden State could be a civil suit unencumbered by a statute of limitations.

The vast majority of states impose some sort of statute of limitation on civil sexual-abuse cases, though the statutes vary widely. In Mississippi, victims have three years to file suit after reaching the age of majority; in Montana, they have three years after discovering a connection between the abuse and some sort of personal/emotional injury; in Massachusetts, victims can file within 35 years of the abuse. New Jersey isn’t the only state where activists and legislators are working to change the law. Similar bills are pending in Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania. In January, a new bill passed in California, making it one of only three states with no statute of limitations in civil sexual-abuse cases (along with Maine and Utah).

But in New Jersey, S2405 never made it to a vote and eventually expired. Two subsequent similar bills—in 2012 and 2014—met the same fate.  As of this writing, S280 is awaiting review by the Senate Judiciary Committee; if it makes it to a review, it might then be voted on by the Senate and eventually be joined by the Assembly version.

The bill’s troubled history has been a source of enormous frustration for Brennan, who testified before the Judiciary Committee in 2010, alleging that he had been abused as a child, first by the musical director of his church, Keith Pecklers, and then by his parish priest, Thomas Stanford.  The son of devout Catholic parents, Brennan believed for years that he was alone in his victimization. That changed in 2002 when, at the age of 39, he watched a televised report about dozens of  Boston-area priests accused of sexually abusing minors—a story broken by the Boston Globe that inspired the 2015 film Spotlight. “When I heard that there were priests who were being accused of sexually assaulting boys in particular,” he says, “I was just absolutely stunned.”

The revelation triggered a flood of memories, but another six years would pass before Brennan could muster the emotional wherewithal to speak out about his abuse.  He “found his voice,” as he puts it, in 2008, after watching another news report on the sexual-abuse crisis. This time it was the identity of one of the talking heads that floored him; the Vatican’s spokesperson was none other than Keith Pecklers, now a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

“After decades of suffering from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, self-mutilation, an eating disorder and the fear that my abusers had given me AIDS,” Brennan says, “finally the light broke through, and I was determined to hold the two men who had abused me responsible for their actions.”

That same year, Brennan, a fashion designer, started work on a documentary film about his abuse and survival (it would be released in 2011 as Of God and Gucci). He also hired a lawyer and received a low six-figure settlement in October 2008 from the Society of Jesus and the Newark Archdiocese. When Brennan accepted the settlement, he says, it was with the stipulation that both priests be “held accountable” for the alleged abuse by submitting to questions from their respective church review boards and by being removed from any positions that would afford them access to children.

At the time, Stanford was director of Catholic Cemeteries in New Jersey and was also teaching religious classes in a parish in Wayne. After the review, he was fired from both positions. In published reports, Pecklers doesn’t deny he abused Brennan but notes that he himself was a minor at the time. Brennan maintains that the abuse continued after Pecklers turned 18.

In 2010, Brennan agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Trenton, which at the time was considering the first version of the bill. Throughout the day, discussion of S2405 was repeatedly delayed.  When Brennan finally stood up to testify, he looked out at an audience that seemed poised for a nap. His testimony, which a Star Ledger story described as “a bombshell,” woke them up.

The fireworks, however, proved insufficient to move the Legislature to action. The forces in opposition to S2405 had some heavy artillery of their own and continue to wield it to discourage the legislation.

“In every state that I’ve testified in, and I’ve testified in several, including New Jersey, the Catholic church is the lead lobbyist against the elimination of the statutes of limitations,” says Robert Hoatson, a former priest with the Archdiocese of Newark and the founding director of Road2Recovery, a nonprofit organization providing support and advocacy for victims of sexual abuse. He’s not alone in tagging the church as the bill’s major adversary, although insurance companies—which could be financially vulnerable if the church or other insured organizations were found culpable in a spate of civil lawsuits—are also fighting the legislation.

It “has always been the position of the church not to be supportive,” says Vitale of the bills’ history. Crawford agrees. “The lobbying arm of the Catholic church has vigorously opposed any amendments or changes to the law in every state with pending legislation,” he says.

That lobbying arm is the state Catholic Conferences, which represent the bishops of each state in public-policy matters. The New Jersey Catholic Conference has been vocal in opposing repeal of the state’s statute of limitations. They’ve sent their own lobbyists to testify against each iteration of the bill, and in 2013, they hired the powerful Trenton lobbying firm Princeton Public Affairs Group to assist them. Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, testified before the state Legislature in June 2012, asking, “How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50, or 60 years old?”  He went on to note that “statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.”

In fact, says Men in My Town author Keith Smith, whether a case is criminal or civil, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. “Just because I drag somebody into civil court and say it happened, I don’t automatically win—I have to prove my case,” he notes.

Smith actively supports the repeal fight in New Jersey and elsewhere, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012 despite the fact that he can’t bring his own abuser to justice.  In 1974, Smith, then 14, was abducted, beaten, and raped by a stranger (not a priest) who, miraculously, released him after a nearly three-hour ordeal. But in 1975, his abductor was beaten to death, a homicide that was never solved. To arrive at some sort of personal justice, Smith advocates. “I got involved with the bill,” he says, “because I can speak out.”

But would the law, if passed, actually promote justice? In his 2012 testimony, Brannigan claimed that it would not protect a single child, but instead would generate an enormous transfer of money in lawsuits to lawyers. Indeed, the fear of paying out vast sums of money in lawsuits—whether to lawyers or victims—has prompted a number of dioceses around the country to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows them to negotiate settlements rather than have the cases go before a judge or jury.  In addition to potentially saving money, this tactic keeps cases out of the public eye.

“It’s only when these cases actually get to court that the truth is exposed, because of the process of discovery,” Crawford says. And, he adds, exposing the truth—along with the perpetrators—may be the only way to promote lasting institutional change and protect children against future abuse.

For many victims, unshrouding the truth is more important than any monetary payout. “I don’t want money,” says Fred Marigliano. “I will have peace when I have justice.”

In 2015, to shed light on the struggle to repeal the statute of limitations, Marigliano walked the length of the state, from the Cape May Lighthouse to Mahwah. Every day, he says, people came up to him with stories of their own abuse or the abuse of those they loved. “One lady was following us in her car for quite some time,” he remembers. Eventually, she pulled over and approached Marigliano. “My husband was raped by a priest when he was a child,” she told him, “and it ruined my marriage.”

Arthur Baselice, too, is a victim of sexual violence once removed. His son, Arthur, overdosed on heroin in 2006 after years of abuse by a priest who, Baselice says, introduced him to the drug.  What Baselice, a resident of South Jersey, wants most is “accountability and transparency,” but he’s hamstrung, he says, by the statute of limitations. Asked whether he thinks the bill will pass, he states simply, “It has to pass.”

But even some who’ve fought diligently for its passage have doubts. “The Catholic church has a tremendous amount of political power in our state,” says New Jersey SNAP director Crawford. He and former priest Hoatson believe that, even if the bill passes the Legislature this year, it’s hard to imagine that Governor Chris Christie would sign it into law. (The governor’s office would not comment for this story.)

Still, movement in neighboring states offers some reason for hope. In February of this year, prompted by a statewide investigation into allegations of widespread sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, the Pennsylvania Senate revived legislation that would raise the filing limit for old cases of abuse from 30 years to 50 and would completely eliminate the statute of limitations in future cases. And in January, New York governor Andrew Cuomo expressed his support of a similar bill in his state, known as the Child Victims Act.

It remains possible that the state Legislature may pass a compromise version of the bill, perhaps setting an age limit on past cases of abuse, as in Oregon. In fact, according to Crawford, who met with Vitale in February, the bill’s supporters in the Legislature are considering a potential amendment that would set such a limit in New Jersey at age 55. “We’re still building consensus and support,” notes Vitale, who thinks the bill could pass “this spring or fall” but isn’t making any promises.

The church promises to look closely at the latest bill. “We have and will continue to work with Senator Vitale on the legislation,” says Brannigan. “We are currently waiting for the latest amendments to be shared so we have the opportunity to continue to work with the senator on the legislation.”

For Marigliano, who says he’d be loath to consider any amendments, it all comes down to justice. One of  “the toughest things I ever had to do was to testify three times,” he says.  “But I don’t care if I have to testify 1,000 times—I’ll never give up.”


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