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Vote could change lawsuit shield

Dec 8, 2005 |

 A bill that would remove the shield protecting charities from liability in child sex assault cases and grant new powers to abuse victims in New Jersey is finally poised to become a law.

More than 1 1/2 years after the state Senate overwhelmingly voted to amend a state law known as the Charitable Immunity Act that protects schools, churches and other nonprofits from civil lawsuits, the Assembly is set to consider the legislation.


 Victims cried when they heard the news.

"I was in tears and I was trembling," said Mark Crawford, a Bayonne native who was abused by his parish priest along with his brother and who has called for a change in the law for several years.

"This is long overdue," Crawford said. "The change in the law will bring justice for children. More importantly, the Assembly is standing up and doing the right thing. It is saying the protection of children will come before the need to protect the institution."

Abuse victims and advocates from groups such as Voice of the Faithful, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests plan to rally in front of the State House at 10 a.m. Monday to urge lawmakers to pass the bill.

The bill languished in the Assembly over the past year amidst opposition from the state's Catholic bishops. The New Jersey Catholic Conference (NJCC), the lobbying arm of the bishops, initially tried to kill the bill and later urged lawmakers to instead set time limits on how far back the legislation would apply retroactively. Church officials have argued the change in the law would allow victims from decades-old cases to sue the church.

The bill would allow such victims to go to court, but legislators said the victims still would have to overcome the state's statute of limitations, a high hurdle to jump.

The Assembly amended the wording of the bill to clarify that the statute of limitations would not be removed. Under that statute, a victim must file a suit within two years of his or her 18th birthday or within two years of realizing they were abused, i.e. within two years of a repressed memory surfacing.

Otherwise the legislation leaves the door open for victims who are in the process of suing a nonprofit and other victims who have not filed cases and fall within the statute of limitations to have their day in court.

The bill states that it would "include but not be limited to matters filed with the court that have not yet been dismissed or finally adjudicated." The amendment statement also says, "The provisions of this bill are not only prospective but also applicable retroactively to actions for which the statute of limitations has not expired as of the effective date of this bill."

The bill makes nonprofits liable for negligently hiring, supervising or retaining employees who sexually molest a minor or take pornographic photos of a minor.

Nonprofits still would be shielded from other civil suits, for example a case resulting from someone tripping on church steps.

Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, a champion of the bill in the Assembly, was elated the bill was posted and seemed confident it would be approved.

"It will be wonderful occasion," Cohen said. "If the bill passes, the victims in the state are going to see the face of justice after so many decades."

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