27 Jan 2011

Catholic church fights New Jersey bill that would reform statute of limitations and expand liability to supervisors of children

The Star-Ledger New Jersey December 13, 2010

More time for justice under proposed child abuse law

by Star-Ledger Editorial Board

Child abuse victims usually don’t have time on their side. Painful memories are often submerged only to surface years later. And even when the memory is clear, the victim may delay confronting his or her abusers for emotional reasons. By the time the victims want to step forward, the adults who betrayed them have often been able to escape accountability in civil court because of a statute of limitations.

No more.

A new bill would repeal the state’s two-year limit on civil lawsuits, and expand the circle of people who are potentially liable for not halting the abuse — from parents and guardians to anyone in a supervisory role over a child, including clergy and teachers. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill unanimously, and it deserves the support of the full Senate when it comes to a vote. Perhaps not surprisingly, a representative of the Catholic church, which still harbors miscreant priests, testified against the legislation.

Lifting time barriers matters deeply in these cases: Victimized children are essentially powerless, threatened by adult predators into silence, and often made to feel shamed and complicit in the act. It’s only later, as adults, that they can attempt to extract a measure of justice by suing the people who injured them and the institutions that failed to provide protection. Of course, the law doesn’t guarantee an outcome, only access to the legal process. The adults who pursue their cases must still muster the courage to confront and charge powerful institutions and predators who are often considered pillars of the community — and too often, people they know and love.

Rush Russell, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse NJ, a statewide network based in New Brunswick, said these are traumatic memories with consequences for the entire family when the truth comes out. Because strangers are rarely involved.

“In 90 percent of the cases, the child knows the perpetrator, and the family knows and trusts the person,” he explained. “It’s not a stranger, which makes it harder for the child to make sense of it.”

This bill gives the grown-up victims of child abuse time to process painful personal history, without the courts shutting the door in their face.

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  1. Victims of alleged N.J. priest child abuse push to eliminate statute of limitations against claims

    By Mark Mueller, The Star-Ledger December 16, 2011

    The lawsuit Richard Fitter filed in Superior Court in Newark Wednesday is almost certainly doomed to fail. Fitter knows that. The statute of limitations on his claim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest has long since passed. But the 45-year-old Montclair man wanted to make a point.

    "He’s never been held accountable," Fitter said of the Rev. John Capparelli, the man who allegedly groped him repeatedly in the early 1980s. "Without a change in the law, people like me will never be able to truly seek justice and expose pedophiles like the man who abused me."

    Thursday, Fitter brought that message to Trenton, where he and other advocates urged lawmakers to act on a stalled bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations entirely in civil cases alleging childhood sexual abuse.

    After a news conference outside the Statehouse, Fitter hand-delivered letters to the offices of Gov. Chris Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). The letter asked the legislative leaders for their support in passage of the bill, which was introduced late last year.

    As it now stands, New Jersey’s law is among the more restrictive in the nation, allowing lawsuits to be filed for up to two years after a childhood victim turns 18.

    Older victims can bring suits within two years of "reasonably discovering" the connection between the abuse and the emotional damage it caused, but the hurdles established by the state Supreme Court in such cases make it "very, very difficult, if not impossible" to make it to trial, said Fitter’s lawyer, Greg Gianforcaro.

    The advocates’ appeal comes as many states move to expand or abolish their own statutes of limitations in civil sex abuse cases. The issue also has taken on added resonance with the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities, where coaches are alleged to have sexually abused boys as long as two decades ago.

    Mark Crawford, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, compared Fitter’s predicament to the situations faced by some of the alleged victims at Penn State in that they’re barred from suing because the statute of limitations had passed.

    "People who have been abused are dealing with a range of issues," Crawford said. "Some have post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re under great stress. It’s very difficult to get your wits together and speak to anyone about it, much less a lawyer. Two years is far too short." ...


    Amid claims of inappropriate contact with boys, Capparelli was suspended from ministry by the Archdiocese of Newark 1992, though he has not been removed from the priesthood.

    That same year, he was hired as a public school teacher in Newark. The district removed him from the classroom and placed him in an administrative position last month following two Star-Ledger reports about Capparelli’s past.

    Fitter’s lawsuit, which also names the Archdiocese of Newark as a defendant, is the second against Capparelli. In June, a 48-year-old Somerset County man, Andrew Dundorf, made similar claims. Dundorf attended Thursday’s press conference to show his support for Fitter and to urge the Legislature to pass the statute of limitations measure.

    The Senate bill, S2405, was approved with unanimous, bipartisan support by the judiciary committee last December but was then referred to the Senate budget committee, where it remains.
    The committee’s chairman, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), said Thursday he’s evaluating the measure and considering whether to put it up for a committee vote Jan. 5. ...

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