New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton (Photo: Wikimedia)

A bill that would remove  the statute of limitations in certain civil actions for sexual abuse and expand the categories of defendants liable in such actions passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

After five hours of testimony in which dozens gave tearful, personal accounts of sexual abuse, the committee approved S-477 by an 8-1 vote with two members absent. The vote came just after 6 p.m., and loud applause erupted in the room.

The measure, which now heads to the full Senate, would make institutions who harbor victimizers liable and would provide that any person who knowingly permitted or acquiesced in the sexual abuse would be civilly liable.

Under the measure, plaintiffs could sue institutions that protect the perpetrators “due to the negligent hiring, supervision or retention of an employee, agent or servant of a nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes.”

Current law requires that personal injury suits involving sexual abuse of a child must be commenced within two years of accrual of the cause of action, except for certain medical malpractice actions on behalf of minors.

The bill aims to extend the current statute of limitations from two years to seven years for adult victims of sexual assault. Additionally, if an incident of sexual assault occurs before the victim turned 18, that person would be able to file a claim any time up until they turned 55. Once signed, the bill would go into effect Dec. 1, 2019.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up an identical bill, A-3648, on Monday, May 11, in Committee Room 11 at the Statehouse Annex.

The Senate measure was first introduced on Jan. 9, 2018. A-3648 was introduced on March 12, 2018.

Primary sponsors of the Senate bill are Sens. Nicholas Scutari, D-Middlesex, and Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex.

S-477 would apply to any action filed on or after the effective date, including but not limited to matters where the statute of limitations has expired and matters filed with a court that have not yet been dismissed or finally adjudicated as of the effective date.

The bill would not revive any action previously dismissed on grounds other than the statute of limitations or revive any action that has been finally adjudicated.

“It’s critical that survivors of sex abuse, both children and adults, have an opportunity to access justice, and it also protects the public,” said primary sponsor Vitale, during a break from testimony. “We get to all learn who the predators are, so they can be prosecuted. If we never peel back the curtain, we will never know who they are.

“They are still out there, be it in ministry, coaching or Scouting, and, if they were credibly accused of sexual abuse but the statute of limitation ran out on them,” Vitale said. “They are still out there, and this bill gives us more information for those who accused them.”

S-477 amends the Charitable Immunity Act, holding organizations, such as churches and nonprofits, liable for any “willful, wanton, or grossly negligent act resulting in the commission of various crimes of a sexual nature or sexual abuse.”

The bill would impose liability for individuals’ negligence under certain circumstances resulting in the commission of sexual assault or any other crime of a sexual nature or sexual abuse. Such individuals would be liable if that person had a supervisory or oversight role over the person committing the act of sexual assault or sexual abuse.

The lone “no” vote came from Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen.

“We understand the gravity of the problem, but I don’t think the bill understands the gravity of the problem,” Cardinale said. “I have decided to have a bill drafted to do exactly that. I believe this bill will impose a secondary monetary liability on nonprofits. Pedophiles will just change methodology.”

Among the first to testify inside a packed, emotionally-charged Committee Room 4 was Katie Brennan, the official in the governor’s administration who accused a former top Murphy staffer, Albert J. Alvarez, of raping her after a campaign event in April 2017.

On Jan. 7, 2019, Brennan filed a civil suit against the state of New Jersey and Alvarez, seeking damages. She said eight months passed after she was raped before she took legal action, not knowing the “statute of limitations” clock was ticking.

“Victims need this,” she told the 11 committee members. ”Two years is not enough.”

Also seeking justice was Sarah Klein, now 39, the first known victim of former Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar. She claims Nassar abused her starting at age 8 and continued for 17 years.

In January 2018, Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for decades of sexual abuse after more than 150 women and girls testified in court that he sexually abused him.

“The law will not benefit perpetrators and institutions who want to avoid accountability for the devastation and destruction they’ve caused,” Klein said in her testimony. “Perpetrators and institutions are the ones who benefit from statutes of limitations.”