“There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief…”
-Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan
(All Along The Watchtower)
Looking across the Delaware River with a view of Pennsylvania, I’m thinking that it’s time the New Jersey Legislature takes a stand on behalf of those victimized by sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Here’s why.
For Catholics everywhere, the sex-abuse scandal in the Church is a hot button issue and like a fire it can smolder and even turn cold if left unattended. Some flickering fires just need to be stoked.
Across the river, the Pennsylvania State Senate is currently debating the merits of “suspending for two years” the statute of limitations on civil cases for child sexual abuse. This is all in the aftermath of an explosive grand jury report that documented widespread abuse of thousands of children by hundreds of priests.
It’s been reported that the measure will possibly need 10 GOP votes in the Senate. Republicans control the upper chamber there with a 33-16 majority and one vacancy unlike in New Jersey, which has a Democratic majority. Their lower house has already passed the bill and the Governor of Pennsylvania supports it.
A victim has until age 30 to sue in civil court in Pennsylvania, including being entitled to hold responsible those institutions that enabled and covered up for the abusers.
The grand jury report actually called for the outright suspension of the statue of limitations so that older victims, regardless of age, who were sexually abused when young, can file a justifiable lawsuit.
Some members of the Keystone Senate actually argue that passage of such an “open window” measure (two year suspension) would be unconstitutional and a boon for trial lawyers.
But, all that really means is that the church hired lobbyists are hard at work trying to derail the bill.
The statute of limitation for civil action is two years here in New Jersey. If you were sexually abused as a child or as a teenager and didn’t seek remedy until adulthood you were victimized again, only in the latter case by the system.
The Catholic Church in New Jersey and in neighboring states spends large sums of money retaining lawyers and lobbyists to keep it that way. Simply put, limitless funds to protect the bad guys.
New Jersey’s Attorney General, to his credit, recently formed a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy members and any and all efforts to cover up incidents of abuse here in this state some of which have been well known and documented.
He appointed the well regarded former Essex County (Acting) Prosecutor Robert Laurino to head up the investigative work.
But, that’s like declaring that the church has failed to police itself so we’re sending in the cops.
In the meantime, what’s really needed here to meaningfully address the sex abuse crisis, which has plagued the church worldwide for decades, is legislative redress in New Jersey. It’s time to take a page from the Pennsylvania playbook.
It can be done, regardless of the cost to the church, by the outright elimination of the statute of limitations for civil action.
For the church it’s now about money. Collections are down, so is confidence in clerical leaders, the same church leaders who continue to use lobbyists and lawyers to try and influence legislative leaders.
New Jersey’s five Catholic dioceses have spent more than $50 million dollars in the last ten years to settle abuse cases. That doesn’t include the large sums of money spent to stall legislation and thwart remedies for the abused.
For the Church, it’s not about protecting children; they can cede that responsibility to the courts. It’s not about protecting priests either. They are apparently done with that as evidenced by the in fighting and blame game among them. What it is about is protecting their assets.
So here’s the New Jersey challenge. State Senator Joseph Vitale’s bill to extend to 30 years the statute of limitations for those sexually abused has now been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It had previously languished in the hopper for years.
There is a companion bill in the State Assembly sponsored by Annette Quijano of Union County.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Nick Scutari of Union County, assumedly will call on Senate President Steve Sweeney of South Jersey to decide whether to post the bill for a hearing.
If so directed, and the bill is subsequently voted out of committee, the next decision of the Senate President is whether and when to post the bill for a vote by the full Senate.
And, like in Pennsylvania, it all comes down to the legislative leaders and how they wrangle and interact with church leaders and their lobbyists.
Before years’ end, we’ll know where these leaders and hopefully the members of the legislature stand on the issue.
When the Cardinal from Newark and the Bishop from Camden, who claim to be for full transparency, weigh in with their lobbyists and lawyers they should be asked for whom they advocate.
Then, after hearing them out, praise the Lord, pass the legislation and, by doing so, let the courts decide, not the church leaders, on the merits of each and every case of abuse.