A bill that would extend the current statute of limitations from two years to seven years for adult victims of sexual assault, as well as expand the categories of defendants liable in such actions, passed the full Senate on Thursday by a 32-1 vote.
The measure, S-477, also creates a window so child victims from the past are not shut out of filing suit against their abusers years later. For instance, in an incident of sexual assault occurring before a victim turned 18, that person would be able to file a claim any time up until turning 55.
Research has shown victims tend to report cases of sexual abuse later in life—and why advocates say the change in law is needed. Mental health experts and the Centers for Disease Control have put 55 as the average reporting age of past sexual abuse.
Once signed by Gov. Murphy, S-477 would go into effect Dec. 1, 2019.
“The vast majority of claims [by victims] against their abusers and rapists expire before these survivors are able to hold them accountable in a court of law,“ said the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex. Vitale has championed the legislation in various iterations over the last 20 years only to see it never reach a floor vote, until Thursday. “It would also shift the cost of abuse from the victims to the ones who caused it and bring delayed, but still welcome justice to the victims.”
The lone “no” vote on Thursday came from Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, who said he feared the bill would give predators a pass.
“We’re going after the assets of nonprofit organizations—which takes the pressure off true offenders,” Cardinale said during floor debate before the voting board lit up to tally votes for S-477.
Unlike previous efforts, Vitale said the bill had momentum this year due to a combination of cultural, social and political shifts. It also had the scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report released last fall that detailed widespread sexual abuse within six dioceses of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and the systemic cover-up by senior church officials, said sex abuse plaintiffs attorney Gregory G. Gianforcaro of Phillipsburg. He said the findings gave victims new ammunition in their quest for justice.
“That [report] was a huge step forward and huge wake-up call for the entire United States,” Gianforcaro said. “The other issue was Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick—that woke up society that this issue goes to the highest level of the church. Even a Cardinal was abusing children.”
Last month McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood after the church found him guilty of abusing children and adult seminarians.
“This is a great day. It’s moving in the right direction. We have one more hurdle,” said Mark Crawford, New Jersey state director of SNAP, an acronym for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, of the bill’s final legislative step—on March 25, when the full, 80-member Assembly is set to vote on it. An Assembly committee approved the measure Monday.