New Jersey Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a primary sponsor of state legislation to ease time limits on civil suits claiming sexual abuse, speaks at a State House news conference on May 13, 2019, after the measure is signed into law. – Photo by Suzette Parmley/ALM

A bill extending the statute of limitations for civil actions alleging sexual abuse was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday. The measure also expands the scope of liability among institutions who perpetuate or harbor abusers.

“Survivors of sexual abuse deserve opportunities to seek redress against their abusers,” Murphy said in a statement. “This legislation allows survivors who have faced tremendous trauma the ability to pursue justice through the court system.

“I thank the bill’s sponsors for their commitment to tackling this issue, as well as the advocates for their activism and engagement,” the governor added.

S-477 was approved by the full Senate by a 32-1 vote on March 14. Its counterpart, A-3648, passed the Assembly in similar fashion (71-0-5) on March 25.

With the governor’s signature, the new law will take effect Dec. 1.

The new law provides:

  • A two-year window from enactment for the filing of any civil case alleging adult or minor sexual abuse that occurred in the past;
  • That anyone under 18 who has been sexually abused in the past be able to bring a cause of action within the next two years;
  • That those who were sexually abused in the past as minors and who miss the two-year filing window be able to bring their cause of action until age 55;
  • That those 55 and older who allege delays in connecting past abuse to damages have an opportunity to seek justice through the courts—a period of seven years from the point they made that connection.

The measure also expands the categories of potential defendants accountable for sexual abuse in civil actions.

New Jersey’s law is something of a hybrid between laws in Delaware and Connecticut. Delaware’s legislation provided a two-year window, but it did not address victims of child sexual abuse who missed the filing window. Connecticut, after a scandal in 2002, changed its statute of limitations to allow victims of child sexual abuse to file claims until age 48.

“For too long, survivors’ choice was restricted by New Jersey’s insufficient two-year civil statute of limitations for sexual assault,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) at a Statehouse press conference attended by other advocates, victims and lawmakers. “Adding this trauma-informed policy to the portfolio of bills we’ve passed over the last few years is a significant step forward and is a direct result of over a decade’s worth of advocacy from survivors.”

The bill’s passage in both legislative chambers marks a significant milestone after nearly a 20-year fight among advocates and victims. Attempts in the past fell short due to lack of legislative support and strong resistance by the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

When reached Monday, the New Jersey Catholic Conference did not have a comment on the bill’s signing, but the Archdiocese of Newark provided a statement.

While we disagreed on specific elements of this legislation, the Catholic community, the legislature, and the Governor sincerely agree on one key position—the need to restore justice for the victims of sexual abuse in New Jersey,” said Maria Margiotta, director of communications and public relations for the Archdiocese of Newark. “The Catholic community is confident that the Independent Victims Compensation Program established by the five dioceses in New Jersey is a significant step towards restoring justice for those who, as minors, were abused by ministers of the Church.

“Further, we are committed to the comprehensive healing of those harmed and we will continue our policies aimed at protecting children from abuse,” Margiotta said.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the primary sponsor in the Senate, affirmed that such resistance to the bill by “a certain institution” that he wouldn’t name kept it from passing for numerous years.

“This law would not have made it to the governor’s desk today, if it wasn’t for the tireless efforts of survivors, advocates and organizations for over a decade,” Vitale said at a packed news conference in the State House Annex where victims hugged and wept.  “This is not my bill or [Senate co-sponsor] Sen. Scutari’s bill, this is their bill.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said times, and the tide, turned.

“Joe had to win me over,” Sweeney said at the podium. “But he did. Just a few years back, he had maybe three votes on this. But as we moved on, we realized we had to do the right thing. Abuse by a priest is just as bad as abuse by a teacher, a Scout Master, and on and on. This bill captures everyone.”

Attorney Greg Gianforcaro, who has a private practice in Phillipsburg which specializes in clergy sexual assault cases, said he expects to see more sexual abuse cases seeking relief from the courts with the new law. He was present at every hearing in Trenton to review S-477/A-3648 and sat among victims, several of whom were past and present clients.

“There are going to be additional lawsuits,” Gianforcaro said in a recent interview. “However, this does not guarantee a win. Victims still have to prove their cases. All this is, is a door to the courthouse that absolutely did not exist before.”

One such case under the new law was expected to be announced on Tuesday. Attorneys from Williams Cedar’s Haddonfield office are to hold a news conference in Cherry Hill to announce case details of a civil action against the Diocese of Camden, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, and St. James Parish on behalf of the plaintiff, who was a young boy when he was allegedly sexually abused by a Catholic priest at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Ventnor. The priest was later removed from ministry amid credible allegations of abusive acts committed against minors, according to a statement.

On March 25, the day the bill was to be voted on by the Assembly, issues came up over its tort claims language regarding public institutions and impact on their level of accountability.

According to lawmakers and supporters, that language was left alone.

The new law makes private and public institutions who harbor offenders liable, and provides that any person who knowingly permitted or acquiesced in the sexual abuse would be civilly liable.

Plaintiffs, according to the legislative language, can 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.”

Existing 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.

“We have an obligation to hold organizations and institutions accountable for the bad actions of their employees,” said Assemblywoman Miley Jasey (D-Essex), co-sponsor in the Assembly.

The bill creates a two-year window for parties to bring previously time-barred actions based on sexual abuse.

The new law 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.

Sponsors and advocates of the bill had rallied behind the lifting of the time limits because they said victims of child sexual abuse can’t be treated the same as other crime victims due to the severity of the trauma and often suppressed memories of the abuse.

A key advantage of the bill, Vitale said, was that “survivors can pursue justice on their time line and not the timeline of the perpetrators.”

“Because those who have been sexually abused often suppress their memories for years or don’t connect their injuries to their abuse, they need much more time to file a civil action,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), primary sponsor of A-3648 with Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Jasey, said. “This new law gives them that time.”

Mark Crawford, a survivor of clergy abuse as a child and currently New Jersey State Director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the new law will be one of the best in the nation and provides an example for other states to follow.

“We are grateful to all the legislators who made this happen,” Crawford said at the news conference. “Thank you so much for sending the message you did in making New Jersey a better state today because of it.”