TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senators Joseph F. Vitale and Nicholas P. Scutari that would hold accountable in civil court child sex offenders and organizations that fail to appropriately respond to employees who commit sex crimes against children was approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, S-1651, would remove the statute of limitations on civil child sex abuse cases, expand who is potentially liable in these actions and provide that public entities would be liable.
“Expanding the statute of limitations on sexual abuse is imperative to providing justice for the victims of these heinous crimes,” said Vitale, D-Middlesex. “The scars of sexual abuse do not heal easily, but hopefully, with time, compassion, counseling and a measure of justice, many of the victims will be able to get on with their lives. While a statute of limitations may make sense in certain civil cases, when it comes to the difficulty that victims endure to speak out about and seek justice for sexual abuse, they should be given a little more leeway. This bill makes sure that sexual abuse victims receive the time and patience needed for them to face their abusers in court.”
“Considering the psychological scars and lifelong trauma of child molestation, many of the victims are not able to process or speak about the crime until long after it has been committed and often not without extensive therapy,” said Scutari, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The current two-year statute of limitations is quite prohibitive in allowing for these victims to seek damages against their abusers. This law will not constrict sexual abuse victims with a meaningless timeline and will provide them with the ability to continue to seek justice and bring closure to their past abuse.”
Under current law, a victim of child sexual abuse has two years from the time they reach adulthood or two years from the time they realize that they were sexually abused as a child to file a civil suit against their alleged abuser. The two-year time period may be paused because of the “plaintiff’s mental state, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds.” The bill would completely remove this statute of limitation both retroactively and in future cases.
The Senators note that the current law has been problematic since it requires the court to determine the moment when the victim realized they had been abused and their current mental state. This elimination of the statute of limitations would not only remove this ambiguity, it would also spare the victim from having to reveal personal and sensitive information to the court.
“Under current law, many of these victims have the burden of proving when they made the connection between psychological trauma and their own sexual abuse in order to allow a case to proceed,” said Scutari, D-Union, Middlesex, Somerset. “This bill would preserve a sexual abuse victim’s medical privacy while allowing them the chance to seek justice.”
The bill would amend current law to make religious, charitable or educational organizations liable for sexual abuse, sexual assault or any crimes of the sexual nature. Currently, trustees, directors, officers, employees, agents, servants and volunteers of organizations are liable for sexual assault committed under their watch, but this legislation would expand this to the organizations themselves.
The bill would also make religious, charitable or educational organizations and their employees and associated volunteers who have direct supervisory oversight of the abuser liable for negligence that results in a sexual crime or child sexual abuse being committed.
“This legislation is about making organizations responsible in their hiring and supervisory practices,” said Senator Vitale. “If an organization has nothing to hide and has acted appropriately in these situations, they will have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, there are organizations who must share in the responsibility of abuse since they did not properly respond to child sexual abuse allegations. These organizations must be held accountable.”
Under current state law, only a parent, guardian or other person standing in loco parentis with the household who knowingly permits or acquiesces to sexual abuse by any other person is liable for sexual abuse. Under the bill, any person who does nothing to stop a known-case of abuse would be liable for civil damages.
According to Vitale and Scutari the goal of this legislation is to provide victims of sexual abuse with as many remedies as possible against both the perpetrator of the sexual abuse as well as those who were complicit with the abuse either by overt actions or by negligence. Additionally, they hope this legislation ensures organizations that work with children fulfill their obligation to report abuse or suspicion of abuse. Vitale and Scutari said that with passage of this legislation, organizations would no longer be able to sweep the sexual abuse of a minor under the rug or transfer known pedophiles into unsuspecting communities. If they do, there will now be a steep price to pay for such atrocious actions.
The bill would apply to any action filed on or after the effective date, including actions that the statute of limitations has already expired on.
New Jersey lifted the statute of limitations for criminal charges on child sexual abuse in 1996. In 2006, legislation sponsored by Vitale removed civil immunity from charitable organizations that enabled sexual molestation of minors.
Alaska, Delaware, Florida and Maine have already abolished the statute of limitations for some if not all sexual abuse cases against minors. Additionally, many other states have extended the statute of limitations in these cases.
The bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with a vote of 7-4-2. It was approved in the Assembly Judiciary Committee last week. The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
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