Letter: Justice for sex abuse victims depends on the difference between civil and criminal courts

     (Rob Tornoe/for NewsWorks)

    (Rob Tornoe/for NewsWorks)

    Recent high-profile sexual abuse cases have spawned a lot of misinformation about what victims are entitled to under the law, and who is ultimately responsible for a perpetrator’s acts. This was apparent in Rob Tornoe’s story, “New Jersey Catholic Church spending big to keep abuse victims silent.”

    The following is a response to an article by Rob Tornoe, “New Jersey Catholic Church spending big to keep abuse victims silent,” published on June 12.

    Recent high-profile sexual abuse cases have spawned a lot of misinformation about what victims are entitled to under the law, and who is ultimately responsible for a perpetrator’s acts. This was apparent in Rob Tornoe’s story.

    First and foremost, there is a difference between the civil statute of limitations and the criminal statute. The criminal court is where sexual abuse victims have their day in court, confront their abuser, and bring him to justice. It’s the venue for punishing pedophiles for their crimes and imprisoning them. It encourages other victims to come forward and seek justice. And it prevents the perpetrator from soliciting new child victims.

    Sexual abuse is one of humanity’s most egregious crimes. It can take years for victims to come forward. This is why New Jersey does not have a criminal statute of limitations for sexual assault. A child who was molested by an adult can press charges against that adult at any time. It’s never too late to prosecute a child molester. And this right is not in question.

    What Rob Tornoe fails to realize is that it’s the civil statute of limitations that is up for debate in the New Jersey Legislature — not the criminal statute as he implies. This is the branch of our justice system that allows individuals to seek financial compensation. The legislation Mr. Tornoe references would allow an adult to file a lawsuit seeking financial compensation from crimes under an expansive set of circumstances, and from a wider pool of defendants.

    The current statute of limitations for civil cases is two years from the date-of-discovery — this would be two years from the time an adult realizes they have been injured as the result of a sexual assault. Many people believe that this is too short a window and that victims have very real financial burdens they should not be forced to shoulder.

    But instead of crafting legislation to extend the amount of time victims have to a file civil lawsuit against their abuser to 10 or even 30 years, the Legislature is considering a trial attorney-backed initiative that would leave all institutions that serve children vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.

    In addition to extending the civil statute of limitations for 30 years going forward, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale, would be applied retroactively. We often forget, in this era of digital archives and easy access to information, just how difficult it can be to verify 30-year-old employment records and information. From an attorney’s perspective, this is exactly the point. Let’s say a 45-year-old New Jerseyan decides to come forward with an allegation of abuse — not in criminal court, where the standards for guilt are much higher — but in civil court, which doesn’t require the same burden of evidence and carries the possibility for financial compensation. The alleged perpetrator could be dead, but the institution in which he served — a school district, YMCA, or other organization — remains active and solvent. The potential for this 45-year-old to abuse the system becomes significantly easier, and takes capital out of an existing community program to make this point. Even lawsuits that have already been dismissed could be revived under the proposed bill, posing a civil double jeopardy for those falsely accused of egregious crimes.

    As much as we would like to legislate our way to a more moral and just society, it is equally important to ensure that we have our facts straight and understand the difference between seeking justice and seeking damages. Exploiting the private hell of child abuse victims for money is reprehensible, and efforts should be focused on bringing perpetrators to justice — in criminal court.

    Marcus Rayner is executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance.

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