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The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee is set to approve a bill that would overturn a state Supreme Court precedent and open the door to suing the Catholic Church over priests’ sexual abuse of children. The bill, S-540, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, would render the Charitable Immunity Act, N.J.S. 2A:53A:-7 et seq., ineffective in cases of alleged negligent hiring and supervision of employees. The Charitable Immunity Act, first enacted in 1958, was passed in response to a string of state Supreme Court cases that abrogated common-law charitable immunity and allowed a person injured as a result of ordinary negligence committed by employees of the charitable entity to recover. The Legislature’s intent was to reinstate common-law charitable immunity, to which there were only limited exceptions. No such exception existed under common law for negligent hiring and supervision of employees, which led the state Supreme Court to nonsuit a plaintiff in a 1984 case. In Schultz v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 95 N.J. 530 (1984), the Supreme Court upheld dismissal of a suit on behalf of a dead teenager who, while a student at a parish school operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., was allegedly forced by a Franciscan teacher to engage in sexually provocative activities and in sexual contact. The teacher also threatened the boy not to reveal what had occurred, but he told his parents what had happened and they immediately notified the Archdiocese. Despite extensive psychiatric and medical care, the boy committed suicide by taking drugs. The suit alleged that the diocese was reckless, careless and negligent in hiring the teacher and permitting him to have young boys under his care, in failing to determine his prior employment history and in failing to supervise him. Finding no negligent-hiring exception under common law, the court, over the strong dissent of Justice Alan Handler, refused to infer one under the statute. No one testified against the bill at a hearing Jan. 26, but Committee Chairman John Adler, D-Camden, delayed a vote until the legal staff of the Office of Legislative Services determines whether it can be made retroactive. Vitale said he wants to make sure that people who did not file cases or whose cases were dismissed because they missed the statute of limitations — two years after the incident or until the age of 20 — can file claims or have their claims reinstated. Senate aides say that the OLS is trying to determine whether the statute of limitations question can be addressed through an amendment, or whether additional legislation would have to be introduced. “[W]e’re not yet set with retroactivity,” said Adler. “We’re going to discuss it again, and we’re going to vote it out of the committee,” Adler said.

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