Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Bill Removing Two-Year Statute of Limitations on Child Sex Abuse Litigation

Govenor Phil Murphy will privately sign a bill, fought for by Senator Joe Vitale for nearly 20 years, expanding the rights of sexual abuse victims. Vitale plans to hold a public ceremony to celebrate this landmark legislation.

TRENTON – It wasn’t officially about the Catholic Church, but as everyone knew, it was about the Catholic Church. And that is precisely why legislation to do away with a two-year statute of limitation on child sex abuse litigation has been so controversial.

Years after the idea arose, the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday evening finally endorsed a bill to do just that. It now goes to the floor; companion legislation in the Assembly also is in the works. The main Senate sponsor is Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex.

The only negative vote came from Sen. Gerry Cardinale, R-Bergen, who said he feared the bill would not do what supporters envision. Cardinale, who is no stranger to standing apart from the crowd, also said he’d be more interested in toughening criminal penalties for pedophiles. But as Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the committee chair, reminded the man from Bergen, the bill under consideration had to do only with civil litigation.

Sexual abuse in the church, sadly, is not a new issue.

But as the hearing ensued for five hours, speaker after speaker – some in riveting and lurid detail – recounted how they were abused as children years ago.

There was a man who said that when he played football more than 50 years ago at Marist High School in Bayonne, a “brother” at the school abused him while he was in a locker room whirlpool.

A woman, now 63, testified that she was raped by a priest when she was a teenager.

But it wasn’t only the Catholic clergy,  who were spotlighted.

One woman said she was repeatedly abused as a child by her uncle and another man said he was abused by his scoutmaster, who later became a priest.

No testimony was as compelling as that offered by Clark T. Fredericks of Sussex County. He said he came forward so that others do not end up like him.

After being abused by his then-Boy Scout leader, Fredericks, who by his own admission was drunk and high on cocaine at the time, stabbed his perpetrator to death in 2012, years after the abuse had occurred. Fredericks was sentenced to the minimum for passion/provocation manslaughter – five years in jail – by a judge who said evidence that Fredericks had been abused by the man he stabbed was overwhelming.

The Catholic Church opposed the bill. Speaking on behalf of all five of New Jersey’s archdioceses or dioceses, Patrick Brannigan objected to the bill’s start time of Dec.1 of this year. He said that may conflict with a special compensation fund the church has set up. That fund, which will pay out claims to victims, is set to run from July 1 through the end of the year. So, there will be a one-month overlap with the new law.

Scutari said that the law won’t impact the fund. Other supporters noted that the law will be in effect (unless it’s changed over the years) indefinitely.

Brannigan also has said that the years of abuse by Catholic clergy is in the past, a point that drew skepticism – to put it mildly – from many in the hearing room.

There was also some opposition from those who said making litigation easier could inevitably hurt non-profit agencies that otherwise do good things.

Scutari put little credence in that view. Speaking near the end of the hearing, he said that if a non-profit is unable to police its own, who needs them in the community?

One of the witnesses early in the day was Katie Brennan, whose ongoing saga continues to roil Trenton.

A special committee has held hearings for three months on Brennan’s claim she was raped by Al Alvarez. Both ultimately got high-ranking jobs in the Murphy administration. Brennan is still there; Alvarez has departed.

“The system is not built for survivors,” said Brennan, who has filed notice she may sue the state. Brennan, who testified for hours in that very same committee room in December, said filing suit is her only option.

But as Brennan wandered into details of her case, the committee chair reminded her to comment only on the bill at hand.

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