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As sex-abuse scandals continue to rock the Catholic Church, two New Jersey legislators are sponsoring bills that would blow away statutes of limitations and largely strip nonprofit organizations of charitable immunity if officials knowingly hire or retain employees suspected of abusing minors. The bills, A-2141, sponsored by New Jersey Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, and S-843, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, have been assigned to their respective judiciary committees and may come up for consideration later this month. The sponsors say the current spate of sex-abuse allegations against Catholic priests motivated the measures. Cohen’s bill would eliminate the statute of limitations in civil suits in which sexual abuse is alleged. At present, suits must be filed within two years of the “reasonable discovery of the injury.” The bill also would amend the Charitable Immunity Act to clarify that any officer, trustee, agent, director or volunteer could be liable if he or she acted negligently in a way that results in sexual abuse. The organization itself also could be held liable under a less strict standard than currently exists, and the bill would allow lawsuits to proceed if a plaintiff could demonstrate negligence in hiring or supervision. Vitale’s bill would overturn the state supreme court’s ruling in Schultz v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, 95 N.J. 530 (1984). There, the court ruled that charitable immunity applies in cases involving allegations that the church’s hiring and supervision of an employee resulted in the sexual abuse of a minor. The bill would provide that the Charitable Immunity Act no longer apply in cases where negligent hiring or supervision led to the sexual molestation of a minor. This is the third time Vitale’s bill has been introduced; the other bills failed to make it through the Legislature. Vitale says he decided to sponsor the bill several years ago after a man who claimed that he was sexually abused by a priest as a child discovered he could not pursue a claim against his diocese because of the court’s holding in Schultz and the Charitable Immunity Act. “I think that ruling needs a response,” says Vitale. “I think now the bill does have a chance to be heard.” Vitale says the bill’s chances of making it through the Senate Judiciary Committee are better because of the power-sharing arrangement in the Senate, which has 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. The Judiciary Committee is chaired by Sen. John Adler, D-Camden, and Sen. William Gormley, R-Atlantic. Gormley previously has expressed reservations about the bill, citing a possible adverse effect on a charity’s finances and its ability to continue to function effectively if exposed to lawsuits. Cohen says he, too, introduced his bill in large part because of the continuing allegations being made about dioceses around the country. “I thought about it a year or so ago, but put it aside,” he says. “But I didn’t realize then how deep and profound these problems were and how bad this has been.” As expected, the New Jersey Catholic Conference opposes both measures. Executive Director William Bolan says religious and other charitable organizations need the protections offered by the statute of limitations. “Can you tell me where you were 20 years ago on April 5?” he asks. “That’s why we need a statute of limitations. Over time, witnesses forget, witnesses die, witnesses move away. It’s a matter of fairness.” The current statute of limitations is fair to plaintiffs because it does not strictly impose a two-year deadline, Bolan says. “If years later, a person who is undergoing therapy remembers something that happened, he can still sue.” Bolan says stripping religious and charitable organizations of the protection of the Charitable Immunity Act would run counter to the recent trend of expanding the law’s aegis. In recent years, he says, the Legislature has moved to include more organizations and workers who are protected by the act. “You have to weigh the good the charity does. If they are exposed to liability, they might not be able to function,” says Bolan.

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