On December 1, a New Jersey law went into effect that extends the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims. It also creates a 2-year lookback window that allows any survivor of child sexual abuse in New Jersey to file a lawsuit, regardless of when the crimes occurred.
The new legislation, along with similar actions around the country, follows the bombshell Pennsylvania grand jury report that exposed the terrifying scope of the clergy sex abuse crisis. More than 1,000 children had been sexually abused while the Church shuffled around hundreds of priests in order to avoid scrutiny.
For many who are impacted by the new legislation, it’s a chance to stand up as an adult for something that happened to them when they were a child. A wave of clergy abuse lawsuits are expected to be filed, as New Jersey becomes the latest state to increase legal options for survivors long silenced by powerful institutions.
“Survivors of sexual abuse deserve opportunities to seek redress against their abusers,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement after signing the bill into law earlier this year.
“This legislation allows survivors who have faced tremendous trauma the ability to pursue justice through the court system.”
How Changes to New Jersey Statutes of Limitations Affect Clergy Abuse Survivors
The new measure is good news for people harmed by powerful members of the Church only to be stonewalled for decades. It increases their ability to file claims against their abusers and the individuals and institutions that failed to report or harbored predators.
This is an important opportunity for both adult and child survivors of sexual abuse. Previously, the statute of limitations was 2 years. Those who were abused as minors had only until they turned 20-years-old, at which point they could no longer file a lawsuit.
Starting on December 1:
- Anyone barred from suing by the statute of limitations will have a 2-year lookback window in which to file claims of child sexual abuse which occurred in the past.
- People who were abused as children are eligible to sue until they reach 55-years-of-age or within 7 years of the discovery of the abuse, whichever comes later.
- People who were abused as adults now have 7 years from the discovery of the abuse to file claims.
- The Charitable Immunity Act has been amended. Before, public, non-profit, and religious institutions had been shielded from liability. Under the new law:
- Such organizations are now liable for negligent acts that result in sexual abuse.
- Also liable are individuals at those organizations with a supervisory or oversight role over the person committing sexual abuse.
By including language that allows people to sue based on the time they discover the abuse, the New Jersey law does more than similar measures in order to protect survivors. The trauma inflicted by sexual abuse is such that many people are unable to connect the crime with the damage it has caused in their lives.
The sad truth is that many survivors blame themselves for what happened. Most abusers, especially those in the Catholic Church, occupied positions of power and trust within their communities. Often, even the families of survivors did not believe what had happened because the Church hid the crimes of these predators instead of alerting their parishioners.
Because of the severe trauma, it can take years for survivors, especially minors, to recognize the relationship between the sexual abuse they endured and the difficulties they face every day. The new law takes this into account and puts power back in the hands of those who may still be coming to terms with the heinous crimes that were done to them.
Religious Institutions No Longer Shielded From Sexual Abuse Liability
In February, the 5 dioceses that make up NJ released lists that named 188 priests and deacons credibly accused of sexual abuse. Included was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who became the highest-ranking American Catholic official to be defrocked as a result of his sexual abuse of minors and adult seminarians.
It took the complicity of many individuals within the Church for a serial sexual predator like McCarrick to stay in power. For decades, those close to McCarrick had the opportunity to do the right thing and warn the world. Fearing for the Church’s reputation instead of the welfare of its children, they stayed silent and allowed the abuse to continue
Under the new law, the Charitable Immunity Act has been amended so that organizations and individuals who enabled abusers can be held accountable. This is a milestone for survivors of sexual abuse, especially those harmed by the negligence of the Catholic Church. No longer are those who turn a blind eye free from consequences.
In public hearings, the bill faced fierce opposition from New Jersey Catholic Conference, which was worried about the legal exposure created by the new measures. Apparently, despite the horrific history of sexual abuse, powerful forces in the Church can’t get their priorities in line with those they hurt.
The Church had decades to investigate claims of clergy sex abuse. They could have handled these serious crimes with transparency and fairness, but they chose to cover them up. By enabling abusers, those responsible caused irreparable damage to the lives of thousands of young people and squandered opportunities to stop predators.
Only a deep and comprehensive reckoning will close this awful chapter in the Church’s history. Both survivors and the Church should be grateful that the truth is finally coming out.