Three former boy scouts who claimed they were sexually abused by a scout leader in the 1990s have been cleared to proceed with a civil suit after a Bergen County judge rejected a challenge on statute of limitations grounds.
The plaintiffs, who are now in their 30s, filed their suits within two years of their discovery that their emotional injuries were linked to the abusive acts, Judge John O’Dwyer ruled Wednesday. Their suits are permitted under the Child Sexual Abuse Act, enacted in 1992 to create a statutory cause of action for sexual abuse, the judge said.
The ruling allows the plaintiffs to proceed with civil claims over their alleged abuse by Stephen Corcoran while they were members of Troop 173 in Parsippany. The judge was persuaded by the testimony from plaintiff’s expert witness Dawn Hughes, a psychologist and an authority on child sexual abuse, at a hearing on the statute of limitations question on July 18 and 19.
Hughes said the “grooming” actions that Corcoran undertook with the three plaintiffs as a precursor to abuse when they were 11 and 12 years of age, such as showing them pornography and talking about sex in a graphic manner, interfered with their ability to discover a link between the childhood abuse and psychological injuries they experienced as adults. The plaintiffs said they understood the connection in 2010 and 2011, after meetings with lawyers and counselors.
The suit names as defendants the Boy Scouts of America; Patriots’ Path Council, a regional arm of the Boy Scouts; and Sedgefield Civic Association, a local group that sponsored Corcoran’s troop. They brought a third-party complaint against Corcoran.
Corcoran was sentenced to seven years in jail in June on charges of possessing child pornography. He faces criminal charges in connection with the sexual abuse of the plaintiffs, and is awaiting trial, said Bruce Nagel, who represents the three plaintiffs in the civil case.
The defendants did not present any expert testimony at the statute of limitations hearing, but merely cross-examined Hughes. O’Dwyer said the defense, “in essence, presents a common man lay approach to the issue and asks the court to ignore not only the testimony of Dr. Hughes, but the body of generally accepted and at the hearing unchallenged medical principles of dissociation, avoidance, suppression and compartmentalization. The psychological concepts as expressed by Dr. Hughes herein have been found to delay the accrual of the cause of action until the discovery that the injuries had been caused by the abuse. Plaintiffs here have all exhibited the subconscious use of psychological defense mechanisms in response to the childhood abuse,” O’Dwyer wrote.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Nagel, of Nagel Rice in Roseland, said the case becomes part of a developing body of New Jersey law allowing abused children to bring civil suits in adulthood. Discovery in the case is nearly complete and a trial is likely in the fall, said Nagel.
“For years, across the country, these abuse cases would be thrown out because the victims, as adults, would say I knew about it but I didn’t want to think about it,” Nagel said. “The standard in New Jersey is a cognitive link between the injury they’re currently suffering and the abuse,” he said.
Corcoran’s attorney, Alan Albin of Morristown, declined to comment on the ruling. The lawyer for the Boy Scouts of America, Harry McEnroe of Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld & Barry in Roseland and Richard Snyder of Morgan Melhuish Abrutyn in Livingston, who represents the Patriots Council and Sedgefield Civic Association, did not return calls about the ruling. The Boy Scouts of America did not respond to a request for comment.