‘Abuse is abuse:’ N.J. lawmakers advance bill expanding sex abuse statute of limitations

The bill would allow survivors to file civil lawsuits against their sexual abusers for conduct that took place years or even decades earlier.

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey’s Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Thursday evening that would dramatically expand the state’s statute of limitations for sexual assault, allowing survivors to file civil lawsuits against their abusers for conduct that took place years or even decades earlier.

The upvote on a bill that had stalled in the Legislature in previous years came after hours of raw testimony from survivors about the abuse they had endured and the struggles of seeking justice with the state’s two-year limit.

This bill is focused on the statute of limitations on civil suits. In New Jersey, there is no criminal statute of limitations on sexual assault.

“They have been shut down by the court system, by this arbitrary deadline,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA. “It’s just a deadline.”

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Under the plan, childhood victims of sexual abuse would have until age 55 to file a civil lawsuit — or within seven years of realizing that they were abused. Adult victims would have seven years from realizing their abuse.

State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who sponsored the bill, said survivors should have more of a chance to seek justice.

“Abuse is abuse is abuse, whether it’s at the hands of a religious leader or at the hands of a scout leader, or at the hands of a teacher, or a father, or a mother, or an uncle. It’s all the same,” he said.

Just a few people spoke in opposition to the proposal at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday.

Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said removing the statute of limitations soon would interfere with the church’s ongoing effort to set up a compensation fund for victims of clergy sex abuse.

“This program is a genuine expression of our remorse and our desire to make amends for past transgressions and to comfort and compensate those victims of abuse,” Brannigan said.

Critics also questioned whether nonprofits and local governments would be able to handle the legal fees required to defend against decades of civil lawsuits.

Yet, the overwhelming majority of speakers Thursday were survivors, who recounted details of their abuse and quests for justice.

Katie Brennan, the state employee who has accused a fellow employee of raping her during Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign, testified in favor of the proposal. Brennan recounted that she was only barely able to file a civil lawsuit during the legally-allowed time period.

Fred Marigliano testified that as a child he was raped by a priest. Now 71, Marigliano says the pain hasn’t gone away.

“I still wake up at night in terror, because I remember him pushing me to the ground,” he said.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee next week.

It could also go up for a full vote in the Senate later this month.

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