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Victims Of Priests Urge Lifting Of Time Limit On Prosecutions

Oct 9, 2002 | AP

Survivors of abuse by priests urged the state Legislature to speed up its consideration of a bill that would allow prosecution in child sexual-abuse cases long after the alleged abuse takes place.

"The goal of all of us is to pursue changes in the law so technicalities wouldn't prevent criminals from being prosecuted," Steve Palo said on Tuesday.

Palo, 41, of Woodbury Heights said he was abused by a priest as a child in Camden. The diocese settled Palo's civil lawsuit in 1993.

Palo and other members of the southern New Jersey chapter of the national group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests advocated a law at their first news conference.

A bill addressing their concerns was introduced in both houses of the state Legislature in January, before sexual abuse by priests made headlines nationwide.

A similar bill introduced in the last session was never brought to a vote.

Each Roman Catholic diocese in New Jersey has told county prosecutors about assault allegations. But prosecutors have said statutes of limitations prevent them from taking criminal action.

The news conference completed the transformation of the SNAP chapter from a support group to an activist organization.

In front of St. Peter's Church, members introduced two 17-year-olds who say they were molested by clergy to bolster the group's claims that local Roman Catholic churches are still not doing all they can to address the problem.

One of the teens, Jonathon Norton, said he planned to seek prosecution of the priest he said assaulted him beginning at the age of 8. The alleged abuser, James Hopkins, is no longer a priest.

Norton can still file a criminal complaint under the existing statute of limitations, which allows prosecution of sexual assault of a minor until the victim turns 23 or two years after the victim discovers the offense whichever is later.

Norton said he accepted a settlement from the diocese in 1999, when he was 14, in exchange for his silence on the matter.

But he said when he learned about the history of the cases, he wanted to help other victims seek help.

"As a young Catholic, you see a priest as God on Earth, so they can't lie," said Norton, now a senior at Hammonton High School.

The second case is the subject of a current lawsuit. Kerry Sanborn, 17, claims she was touched, but not in a sexual way, by a priest who is now a hospital chaplain in the Camden diocese.

Diocese spokesman Andrew Walton said that case will be investigated by a new review board and that prosecutors were made aware of it at the time of the alleged contact in 2001.

Norton's allegations of abuse have been resolved, Walton said.

Walton said that the SNAP claim that cases have happened recently is wrong. There have been no new cases of sexual assault reported in the three years since Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio took over the diocese.

And he said all of the 44 cases reported to a telephone hot line established by the diocese this year were cases the church was aware of.

In all of the cases, information has been given to prosecutors, he said.

The Camden Diocese, which has about 450,000 members, has a history of lawsuits over sexual abuse.

On Monday, the diocese announced it was adopting policies for reporting and responding to sexual-abuse claims that are more strict than those adopted by bishops nationwide in June.

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