TRENTON — The New Jersey Senate on Tuesday voted in favor of legislation to ease restrictions on when childhood sexual-abuse victims can seek damages in court.
The Democrat-led Senate approved the measure, 32-1, sending it to the Democrat-controlled Assembly, where it has already passed through committee.
The legislation would allow child victims to sue up until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The current limit is two years. Adult victims also would have seven years from the discovery of the abuse.
The bill also would give a two-year window to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations, and it makes it easier for victims to seek damages from institutions.
“Statute-of-limitations reform validates victims and puts perpetrators and institutions on notice that the State of New Jersey stands with those victims,” Democratic State Sen. Joe Vitale, who sponsored the bill, said on the floor.
The measure is moving ahead despite opposition from the state's Catholic Conference, which has said it wants to push the implementation date in December back.
Republican State Sen. Gerald Carindale was the only lawmaker to oppose the measure. He said he wants to see legislation that puts “pedophiles” behind bars for life.
There is not a statute of limitations for criminal charges in New Jersey.
The legislation, which has been on lawmakers' radar for nearly a decade, comes soon after the state's five Roman Catholic dioceses released the names of 188 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors over decades. It also comes after they announced last month the creation of a compensation fund for victims.
Among those testifying in support of the measure during committee hearings were a family of sisters who said they were preyed on by a now-deceased priest who went to their Harrisburg parish in the 1980s after working in New Jersey.
Also speaking in support was Katie Brennan, the head of the state’s housing mortgage agency, who came forward with sexual-assault allegations against another state official in a newspaper account last year. Two county prosecutors declined to bring charges in the case against the man she says attacked her, but she is pursuing a civil complaint.
Among those opposed to the measure were the state Catholic Conference and the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute.
Patrick Brannigan, the conference's executive director, told lawmakers in committee that the New Jersey church is fully cooperating with state law enforcement officials who are investigating abuse claims in New Jersey.
He added that the church "sincerely regrets that some in the church failed to protect children."
Brannigan said that the church agrees with the intent of the bill but differs on its approach. He specifically asked that the bill’s implementation of Dec. 1 be made later.
Alida Kass, the president of the Civil Justice Institute, said the bill’s retroactivity could sweep in nonprofits and other organizations, and not just suspected predators.