Major institutions across New Jersey, including the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, are bracing for what could be a torrent of lawsuits as a new law goes into effect Dec. 1 offering adult victims of childhood sexual abuse extended opportunities to sue.
The measure, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in May, extends the state’s statute of limitations for sex-abuse lawsuits and opens a temporary, two-year window to file suit based on previously expired claims.
The reprieve for what in some cases are decades-old allegations could leave defendants ranging from religious institutions to public and private schools facing significant financial strain.
Already the Catholic Church is girding for the impact. Over the last year, New Jersey’s bishops have sold off property, bolstered their insurance policies, and encouraged victims to accept financial settlements from specially launched compensation funds in anticipation of the law. .
In Pennsylvania — where efforts to pass a similar “window” bill have ignited a contentious battle in Harrisburg — the state’s eight Catholic dioceses fear they could become vulnerable over claims involving priests who abused children on trips to the Jersey Shore.
Meanwhile, plaintiff’s lawyers have been blanketing the internet, television, and radio with ads to recruit potential clients. And some of the nation’s most prominent attorneys representing clergy sex-abuse victims have developed rosters of accusers dozens deep, ready to file suit as soon as midnight Sunday.
No one knows exactly how many new suits might emerge over the next several months or what the financial impact might be.
When a similar measure went into effect in New York in August, courts there were inundated with more than 400 new lawsuits on the first day, some with claims dating back to the 1950s. That total has since risen to more than 1,000 and prompted the Diocese of Rochester to declare bankruptcy.
The New Jersey window has the potential to have an even greater impact outside the Garden State.
Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge in Atlantic City ruled that a man who grew up attending St. Anne’s church in Phoenixville could sue the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in New Jersey’s courts because some of his alleged abuse took place in Brigantine and Gloucester City.
The decision could open the door for dozens of clergy sex-abuse victims in Pennsylvania who were abused on trips to New Jersey to pursue claims under the state’s window law, said David Inscho, a partner at the Center City law firm Kline & Specter who represents the plaintiff in the case.
“It was an alarmingly frequent occurrence,” he said. “For many years, the Archdiocese [of Philadelphia] owned a large property in Ventnor. Priests often took victims down to the Shore to seclude and abuse them.”
But the institution left most at risk by New Jersey’s window law might be the Boy Scouts of America.
In recent years, the organization has found itself ensnared in its own scandal spawned by the airing of its “ineligible volunteers list” — confidential files similar to the “secret archives” kept by Catholic dioceses that document decades of abuse allegations against scoutmasters and volunteers nationwide.
Although now based in Texas, the Boy Scouts maintained headquarters in North Brunswick, N.J., between 1954 and 1979. That means accusers abused anywhere in the nation during that period may now have a viable claim in New Jersey courts, said Seattle attorney Michael T. Pfau.
“The focus is often on the Catholic Church,” said Pfau, who represents roughly 75 former Scouts. “But the Boy Scouts of America has as sordid a history … and we feel very comfortable filing lawsuits in New Jersey based on abuse that occurred outside the state."
Asked last week about potential liability in New Jersey, the Boy Scouts responded with a statement that read, in part: “We believe victims.”
“We support some legislation that retroactively reforms the civil statute of limitations,” the statement read. “If an organization knowingly concealed or otherwise withheld evidence of wrongdoing, they should be held liable.”
That language marks a significant departure for an organization that, like the Catholic Church, has historically fought window bills in state legislatures across the country.
Opponents argue that the measures upend a basic tenet of the American legal system that relies on statutes of limitations to protect defendants from claims that are too old to defend because of fading memories and unavailable witnesses.
Eight states — including California, Arizona, and North Carolina — have adopted such measures this year, spurred on by the #MeToo movement and the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse and cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy. But despite kicking off the wave of statute-of-limitations reform, Pennsylvania’s outlook for passing its own window law remains murky.
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law an overhaul of the state’s child sexual-abuse laws with no definite window provision.
Instead, as part of a compromise with the legislature, the new law subjects the window proposal to the constitutional-amendment process. For it to pass, lawmakers will have to approve the measure again during the 2021-22 legislative session and then put it before the state’s voters in a referendum.
Marci Hamilton, chief executive of Child U.S.A., a University of Pennsylvania think tank focused on child protection, dismissed the compromise as a “step backward” that lets lawmakers claim a premature victory even as the odds of successfully completing the constitutional gauntlet remain long.
“New Jersey is taking this giant step forward,” said Hamilton. “Pennsylvania is going from the worst in the country to being the most mediocre.”
Patty Fortney-Julius, who has emerged as one of the state’s most outspoken victim advocates since testifying before the Pennsylvania grand jury, also panned the constitutional-amendment plan.
She has pushed for window legislation before legislative panels in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — each time recounting the abuse she and four of her sisters endured at the hands of a Harrisburg-area priest. Her parents trusted the Rev. Augustine Giella so much that they unquestioningly let him take the girls on unsupervised trips to his home in Manahawkin, N.J., in the 1980s.
Now, thanks to New Jersey’s window and a quirk of fate based solely on where their alleged abuser took them, the Fortney sisters have an opportunity that dozens of other victims in Pennsylvania don’t.
On Monday, they plan to file a lawsuit in Essex County, N.J., against the Diocese of Harrisburg.