31 Oct 2010

New Jersey childhood sexual abuse statute of limitations law upheld

NorthJersey.com June 11, 2009

BY MARY FUCHS | The Star-Ledger

The state’s highest court yesterday upheld a statute of limitations law that determines when victims of childhood sexual abuse can bring charges against their alleged abusers.

Advocates lauded the decision, saying the state Supreme Court was lending its authority to a law they say was loosely interpreted by lower court judges.

"It’s a game-changer," said Stephen Rubino, a Margate lawyer who has represented victims in clergy sex scandals.

The Child Sexual Abuse Act, enacted in 1992, gives victims two years to sue the accused offender once they have realized the emotional and psychological effects of the abuse. But Rubino said courts often misinterpreted the law and threw out valid cases of sexual abuse.

"Trial courts routinely misunderstood the law. The test for most courts was 'do you remember the abuse,'" said Rubino. Remembering the abuse is not enough to show a victim completely understands the extent of the injuries caused by it, said Rubino.

The case before the Supreme Court involved a Morris County man, who said his stepfather, Kenneth Voytac, sexually abused him as a kid. The court protected the victim’s identity.

The decision said the victim was ten years old and had fallen asleep on the couch. He woke up and found his stepfather touching him. Voytac said "it might not be a good idea" for him to tell anyone else, and continued to molest the child until he was 12 years old, according to court documents.

The trial court initially ruled the victim could not sue Voytac because of the statute of limitation. The court said he had made the connection between the abuse and its effect after having sex with his girlfriend in 1999. The victim claimed his full understanding came after a conversation with a coworker in 2002 and the therapy that followed.

Voytac’s lawyer, Bill Johnson, said he has denied the accusations since the trial began more than five years ago. Johnson said the law allows plenty of time for child abuse victims to press charges.

The decision has been closely watched by victims of clergy sex abuse and their advocates because many victims don’t often completely understand the extent of their injuries until adulthood.

The victim’s lawyer, Victor Rotolo, said the decision gives credence to victims’ struggle with their abuse.

"It acknowledges that there is a particular sequence of injuries that these kids go through," said Rotolo.

Pressing charges against an abuser is still a "difficult process" to go through, said Rubino, but the the Supreme Court decision will be significant to "hundreds and hundreds" of victims who were previously reluctant to press charges.

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