TRENTON - R.L. was 10 when he contends his stepfather began sexually abusing him and telling him "it might not be a good idea" for him to tell anyone.

But he says that he had a flashback in September 1999 and that in early 2002, during a conversation with a coworker, he began to realize the extent of what had happened to him and how it had affected his life.

The passage of time between 1999 and 2002 is at the heart of a case that could alter how child sex-abuse complaints are filed and prosecuted in New Jersey.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on whether R.L.'s 2004 lawsuit against his stepfather, whom the Associated Press has not identified in order to shield R.L.'s identity, fell within the state's two-year statute of limitations for sexual-abuse lawsuits.

At issue is whether R.L.'s recognition of the alleged abuse as the cause of depression, gender confusion, cross-dressing, and other issues occurred in 1999 or after his realization in 2002.

The timing is crucial, as New Jersey's Child Sexual Abuse Act, passed in 1992, allows plaintiffs to sue within two years of "reasonable discovery of the injury and its causal relationship to the act of sexual abuse."

The case is being closely watched by victims of clergy sex abuse.

"If the court rules with R.L., it will help every childhood victim of sexual abuse within the state of New Jersey bring cause of action when they've been victimized," said Greg Gianforcaro, a lawyer who has represented numerous clergy-abuse victims in New Jersey. "If it rules with the defense, it's going to be a significant impediment."

A state Superior Court judge in Morris County ruled that the clock started ticking for R.L. in 1999, meaning his 2004 lawsuit was filed too late. An appellate court reversed that ruling in September.

The stepfather's attorney, William Johnson, spoke before Supreme Court justices yesterday and focused on how R.L. told his girlfriend about the abuse in 1999 and the next day told his mother, who responded that he "needed to deal with it."

"I would submit that this shows a realization that he understood what was done to him was wrong and injurious to him," Johnson said.

Victor Rotolo, arguing for R.L., said that his client never repressed memories of the alleged abuse but that he didn't make a connection between it and his later behavior until 2002.

The fact that R.L. didn't tell anyone about his gender confusion or cross-dressing until that time also shows that he didn't fully understand their relationship to the abuse, Rotolo said.

The plaintiff's interpretation of the state statute was put under scrutiny, with Justice Jaynee LaVecchia asking Rotolo whether, for example, a victim could "reasonably discover" the causal relationship only with the help of a mental-health professional. R.L. spoke with a psychiatrist in February 2002 after the discussion with the coworker and before suing.

The justices noted that the statute already accounted for the uniqueness of sexual-abuse victims by allowing plaintiffs to exceed the two-year limit in cases in which mental competency is questioned or duress is applied by the defendant.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at New York's Cardozo School of Law who appeared on behalf of R.L., argued that it was possible he was under "insidious duress" even though he had only one or two brief contacts with his stepfather in the more than 10 years since the alleged abuse occurred.

"The issue is whether the perpetrator has the power to keep the survivor from ever going to court," she said.

The justices did not indicate when they might rule, but the court often takes months to issue decisions.