The Fortney sisters of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, testified before the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees on legislation to remove the statute of limitations in certain sexual abuse cases. It passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on March 11. Front row, left to right: Patty Fortney-Julius and Carolyn Fortney. Barck row, left to right: Saundra Fortney-Colello and Lara Fortney-McKeever. (Photo by Suzette Parmley/ALM)

Another round of hugs was exchanged among victims of sexual assault on Monday after A-3648, the bill removing the statute of limitations for civil suits alleging certain sexual offenses, cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a 4-0-2 vote.

The Assembly bill’s approval came in shortly before 4 p.m. after three hours of testimony—taking up just over half the time and number of victims at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s prolonged hearing last Thursday on the Senate version, S-477. At that hearing, close to four dozen victims testified.

Committee members voting “yes” on Monday were: Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), Vice chair Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) and William Spearman (D-Camden).

Abstaining were the two Republicans on the committee: Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) and Patrick Michael Caroll (R-Morris).

Both committee approvals from Monday and last week set up S-477 to go before a full Senate vote this Thursday in Trenton, while the full Assembly is scheduled to take up A-3648 on March 25.

“We are thrilled,” said Patty Fortney-Julius of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a sexual abuse victim, after Monday’s passage. “We need discovery. We need to know what happened to us in New Jersey.”

Fortney-Julius, now 49, and her sisters, Carolyn Fortney, 38 ,Saundra Fortney-Colello, 52, and Lara Fortney-McKeever, 46, gave tearful testimony on Monday and at last Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee. They recounted how a priest who was transferred from parish to parish in New Jersey before moving to the Harrisburg Diocese in 1980 abused them for years in both states.

Fortney-Julius said her abuse by the Rev. Augustine M. Giella started in eighth grade, when she was 13, and continued for two years. She said Giella abused her sisters at different periods and for varying lengths.

The release last August of findings of a two-year grand jury investigation into widespread sexual abuse of children within six dioceses of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and the systemic cover-up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican was nothing short of seismic, Fortney-Julius said.

Giella, deceased for decades now, was one of the priests named in the grand jury report.

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report was a gift to us, literally,” she said of the scathing report that listed more than a thousand victims and 301 pedophile priests within the Catholic Church, with only two of the priests prosecuted because of statute of limitations laws. “So many things came out, including the cover-ups. We now know so much.”

In a related development also intended to help survivors, A-1711 passed the same Assembly committee on Monday. That bill would establish a “Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.” The first two of 11 listed rights are to have any allegation of sexual assault treated seriously, with dignity and compassion, and to be notified of existing medical, counseling, mental health, or other services available for victims of sexual assault; and two, to be free from any suggestion that victims are responsible for the commission of crimes against them, were negligent or assumed the risk of being assaulted.

“All victims of sexual violence have the right to be treated with respect, dignity, empathy and a non-judgmental attitude,” Assemblywoman Murphy, a, A-1711 cosponsor, said. “This bill makes clear that victims have the right to be free of any suggestion that they are responsible for the violence committed against them, and have the right to have the sexual assault treated seriously and in accordance with their ability and willingness to proceed legally or personally to recoup their losses from any such violence.”