18 Feb 2009

New Jersey's top court hears case of delay in sexual-abuse claim

The Star-Ledger February 18, 2009

by Tom Martello

The New Jersey Supreme Court this morning is scheduled to hear arguments on whether a man who was sexually abused by his stepfather had a right to pursue the case in court even though his civil lawsuit was not filed until 14 years after the abuse ended.

In a case being closely watched by victims of clergy sex abuse, a unanimous three-judge panel had ruled in September that the Warren County man's civil lawsuit should be allowed since he filed it within two years of realizing the abuse was the cause of his depression, gender confusion and cross-dressing.

The decision reinstated a case that had been thrown out earlier by a trial judge who said the time lapse between the abuse and the 2004 lawsuit was too long. The appeals court judges said there must be a clear link between the "conscious awareness" of the abuse and the discovery that an illness is linked to the abuse.

Gregory Gianforcaro, a Hunterdon County lawyer who represents several victims of clergy sex abuse, said the case to be argued today would have widespread implications for victims of childhood sex abuse who do not come forward until later in life.

"This absolutely has a direct influence on my cases," he said. "This is the most important case on childhood sex abuse ever in New Jersey. This is a landmark case."

Many accused clergy sex abusers have escaped prosecution because the criminal statute of limitations had expired, but this case could allow victims to pursue a civil remedy in the courts they fail to associate problems as adults to the earlier abuse until later in life.

Victor Rotolo, a lawyer for the plaintiff, identified only as "R.L.," said the appeals court ruling recognized the complicated nature of sexual abuse.

"This case is important to R.L. and all victims of sexual abuse because it allows for an understanding of the nature of injuries that victims of sexual abuse suffer," he said.

The case the man identified only as R.L., who was abused by his stepfather, Kenneth Voytac, starting in 1987 when he was 9 years old and lasting for several years. Voytac and the man's mother later divorced.

During high school, he started cross-dressing and was treated for depression. He never mentioned the sexual abuse. Also in those years, he increasingly experienced gender confusion, used drugs and got in trouble with the law for stealing. In 1999, while engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman, he had a "flashback" to the abuse but did not seek any treatment.

It wasn't until 2002, when he was talking with a co-worker about his cross-dressing that he made a direct link between his feelings and the abuse.

Before that realization, R.L. had thought he was "supposed to be born a girl," according to the appeals court decision.

William G. Johnson, who represents Voytac, said he felt the appeals judges was wrong to reject the reasoning of the trial court judge, Morris County Superior Court Judge David Rand, that the two-year time limit for any litigation by R.L. should have begun in 1999 when he discussed the sex abuse with his mother and girlfriend.

The Supreme Court is expected to begin hearing arguments at 10 a.m. They can be viewed live on the web.

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