Bill easing limit on sex abuse lawsuits signed by Gov. Murphy

TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation Monday to ease restrictions on when childhood sexual abuse victims can seek damages in court, an action that comes after a wave of details last year about the abuse of minors in the Roman Catholic Church.

Murphy said in a statement that he recognized opponents' worries that the expanded statute, which allows victims to sue institutions, will expose organizations to financial liability. But that is outweighed by concern over victims, the first-term Democrat said.

"I cannot deny victims the ability to seek redress in court for sexual abuse that often leaves trauma lasting a lifetime," he said in a statement accompanying his signature.

The legislation allows 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 statute of limitations is age 20 or two years after first realizing the abuse caused harm.

The bill also would give a two-year window to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitation. It also allows victims to seek damages from institutions.

The state's Catholic Conference opposed the bill during committee hearings. In a statement Monday, the Archdiocese of Newark said it was committed to "comprehensive healing of those harmed."

"(The) Catholic community, the legislature, and the Governor sincerely agree on one key position — the need to restore justice for the victims of sexual abuse in New Jersey," archdiocese spokeswoman Maria Margiotta said in a statement.

While the Catholic Church has been a focal point of debate on the legislation, other institutions like the Boy Scouts would also be liable under the new law.

Attorneys in New Jersey and elsewhere have begun recruiting people to sue the organization, which along with the church says it now has policies in place to sharply curtail abuse.

Many states have overhauled their criminal and civil statutes of limitations since the 2002 Boston Globe reporting detailing abuse in the Catholic Church. But just a handful, including California, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota, have created so-called lookback windows for lawsuits. New York enacted a bill earlier this year that creates a window similar to the one in New Jersey, which already has no statute of limitations on criminal charges.

The legislation has been on lawmakers' radar for nearly a decade, but it comes soon after the state's five Catholic dioceses released the names of 188 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors over a period of decades. It also comes after they announced in February the creation of a compensation fund for victims.

New Jersey's attorney general launched a task force in September to investigate the clergy abuse scandal. That investigation came on the heels of a lengthy grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that concluded more than 1,000 children had been abused over a span of decades by about 300 priests.

The bill had broad support from lawmakers and victims' advocacy groups. The committee hearings on the bill featured hours of emotional testimony, including a family of sisters who said they were preyed on by a now-deceased priest who came to their Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, parish in the 1980s after working in New Jersey.

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 that the New Jersey church is fully cooperating with state law enforcement officials who are investigating abuse claims in the state.

The church, he added, "sincerely regrets that some in the church failed to protect children."

The church agrees with the intent of the bill but differs on its approach, asking instead that the bill's take-effect date of Dec. 1, 2019, be made later, Brannigan said.

Murphy also said that lawmakers have committed to send him a new bill correcting an error in the new law. Specifically, Murphy said, part of the law fails to establish a standard of proof for cases against public entities.

Failing to hold them to the same standard as other institutions would be "unjustified," Murphy said, and the new legislation would hold public entities to the same standard as other organizations.

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