Flood of lawsuits expected as N.J. opens window for sex abuse survivors

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Patrick Hennessy with his pitbull Roxy at his home in Bayville, N.J. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

Patrick Hennessy with his pitbull Roxy at his home in Bayville, N.J. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

At 49, Patrick Hennessy cuts an imposing figure from his days as an amateur bodybuilder, with a mountain of trophies arrayed in his Ocean County home.

But he has spent much of his interior life in torment over a closely-guarded secret.

“My ex-wife didn’t know. I was married for eight years and she never knew about it,” Hennessy said. “My sisters didn’t know. My mother and father — my mother just passed away two years ago. She never knew anything about it.”

When Hennessy was 12, a Boy Scout leader invited him to his Jersey City home before a camping trip. There, Hennessy said, the man fondled Hennessy under his clothes and rubbed his penis on Hennessy for hours.

Hennessy kept silent for decades. He developed insomnia right after the abuse, and later suffered from depression and drug addiction. His marriage fell apart. Two years ago, he seriously contemplated suicide but didn’t follow through.

The memory of the abuse is something he’s never been able to shake.

“You think about it whether you’re sitting in Burger King or playing hockey. Anywhere you are, you constantly always remember,” he said. “It’s something that never goes away.”

After 37 years, Hennessy now has a chance to hold his abuser accountable.

A landmark New Jersey law, that takes effect Sunday, opens a two-year window for all past victims to file civil lawsuits against their perpetrators, as long as the abuse occurred in the state.

Many such victims had previously been blocked from suing by a two-year statute of limitations.

The law also overhauls that statute of limitations for future victims. Now, future child victims have until age 55 — or within seven years of realizing an injury was caused by past abuse, whichever is later — to file a civil lawsuit. Future adult victims will have seven years from discovering an injury to sue.

The new, two-year window for child and adult survivors is seen as one of the most expansive in the country, as more states begin to loosen civil statutes of limitations that victims’ advocates say are too restrictive and thwart justice.

California, Arizona and North Carolina have created temporary windows for victims to sue.

Others, like Pennsylvania, expanded the civil statute of limitations but stopped short of allowing retroactive suits.

The sea change in New Jersey came amid continued opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which helped defeat similar measures in previous years.

New Jersey Sen. Joseph Vitale holds a press conference at the Statehouse after the signing of a law that expands the window of time sex abuse victims get to sue their abusers in New Jersey. He is joined by Senate President Steve Sweeney and other lawmakers, attorneys and activists. (New Jersey Senate Democrats)

But the 2018 release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, and growing outrage over sexual misconduct uncovered through the #MeToo movement, renewed the focus on the state’s two-year statute of limitations and amplified calls to change it.

Now, hundreds of child and adult survivors are expected to come forward with their accounts of abuse in the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church and other organizations.

“We also have the boarding schools, I have no doubt. Sports teams, public schools, even the lifeguards at the Shore,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the advocacy group CHILD USA. “Everywhere a child could be and could be taken off alone, all of them were at risk at some point.”

Hamilton, an attorney, has pushed for similar “window legislation” in states across the country as a way to give victims who were blocked by civil statutes of limitations the ability to have their day in court.

Such laws “are good for victims, there’s no question, but they serve the larger public good by educating the public and telling the public the truth about the institutions we trust,” Hamilton said. “Parents need them, and so does every person who wants to see children safe.”

Survivors can win monetary damages in the lawsuits as a form of compensation for years of pain and suffering.

Attorney Greg Gianforcaro, who grew up in a parish where a priest abused other children, said there’s another aspect of litigation that’s even more important for many survivors: the ability to obtain internal documents and other evidence through the discovery process.

He said for many of his clients, filing a lawsuit is akin to saying, “Now, I’m in control.”

“That is such a powerful feeling that my clients get because they are now taking the initiative to get their voice back, a voice that they lost when they were children when they were sexually abused,” he said.

Religious organizations and other groups that opposed the New Jersey law have argued that an uptick in financial penalties would put them at risk of shuttering. After a similar window opened in New York this summer, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester in upstate New York declared bankruptcy. In October, the Boy Scouts said they would nearly double their annual membership fees.

But Hamilton, with CHILD USA, said that even though New York has seen about 800 lawsuits filed since August, there has not been any mass closure of institutions named in the legal actions.

“The idea that the world was going to end because people were going to hold institutions accountable just hasn’t panned out,” she said.

What Hamilton and other advocates say the Catholic Church, in particular, fears most is a victim’s ability to obtain internal documents.

“You can’t ignore us anymore,” said Bruce Novozinsky, who says he was assaulted by a priest when he was 16 and later wrote a book about clergy abuse in New Jersey. “You absolutely can’t ignore us anymore.”

In June, the Catholic Church of New Jersey opened a victims compensation fund, which allows survivors to file a claim with the church if they were abused by clergy. Fund administrators may offer the victim a financial settlement that, if accepted, revokes the victim’s right to sue the church over the allegation.

So far the fund, which closes on Dec. 31, has received 202 claims and paid out $4.7 million on 38 accepted offers, according to a spokeswoman.

Church officials have said the fund is a way for the organization to atone for decades of clergy sex abuse and help victims avoid the adversarial process of a trial. But advocates say it also prevents the victim from discovering how the church handled the allegation and learning whether the abuse was covered up.

The two-year window also comes as a state task force continues to investigate claims of clergy sex abuse in New Jersey. There is no criminal statute of limitations on sexual abuse in the Garden State.

Since Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the formation of the task force in September 2018, the state secured a four-year prison term against one former priest who sexually assaulted a teenage girl, and arrested another priest on charges that he repeatedly touched the private parts of a child younger than 13.

More accounts of abuse are likely to come out as people like Patrick Hennessy find their voice.

“If it did happen to you, get out there, tell. Don’t be afraid or shamed or embarrassed, because there’s nothing to be ashamed about,” he said. “The person that did this to you should be ashamed.”

Editor’s Note: This is a corrected story.  A previous version misstated Greg Gianforcaro’s personal experience with sexual abuse.

Resources for child and adult survivors of sexual violence

New Jersey-specific:

General:

The National Center for Victims of Crime also lists resources for crime reporting, suicide prevention and other services on its website.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center and other sites have compiled additional resources for women of color, deaf women, male survivors and other groups.

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