New Jersey has joined a growing number of states that are giving power to the voices of those who were sexually abused as children at the hands of the clergy and organizational leaders tasked with teaching them and keeping them safe. While study after study has shown that it can take years – if not decades – for a victim to come to grips with their abuse and seek justice against their abuser, it is only recently that states have begun taking the steps necessary to open up the judicial system to them. Previous statutes of limitations had failed to recognize the impact that such abuse can have on survivors and either forced them to take action before they were ready or closed the doors of justice to them altogether.
Legislation that was passed in the New Jersey Senate earlier this year seeks to remedy that situation. Under the new law, a child victim can sue their accuser for civil penalties until the age of 55 or within seven years of their realization that they were, in fact, abused. As the law is currently written, that limit is only two years. Adult victims of abuse would also have the same seven years to take action against their abuser.
The measure shows that legislators’ patience for organizations whose names have become synonymous with the sexual abuse of those whom they are supposed to serve and protect has worn thin. Shortly before passage of the new legislation, over 180 priests within New Jersey’s five Roman Catholic dioceses were named as probable abusers after credible allegations of abuse were brought against them. Predicting a tidal wave of lawsuits as a result, the dioceses established a victims’ compensation fund and named an administrator.
The Church lobbied extensively against the legislation and emphasized the ease of its compensation funds over the time and potential “retraumatization” of the survivor that could come with depositions and questioning in a legal proceeding. But for some, it’s not about making things easy. It’s about justice and everything that comes with it. As one victim put it, he wants to use a legal process to get answers rather than accepting a payout with no questions asked or answered – particularly why the priest who abused him at the age of seven had been moved from his parish in Michigan to New Jersey where the two would eventually cross paths.
“I think it’ll help me as a victim and a survivor to know the full story,” he says. “It’s my story. I’m the one who paid the price for that story. He didn’t pay the price; I paid the price with my soul.”