Lara Fortney-McKeever fought back tears on Monday as she and her sister announced a long-awaited lawsuit against the Newark Archdiocese and Harrisburg Diocese. They allege officials there protected a now-deceased priest that sexually abused them and three of their siblings in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“Who knew he was a pedophile and aided in helping to cover it up?” she asked. “Were we silenced so that certain individuals could step on our backs to rise to power?”
About an hour later, a man announced a separate lawsuit alleging that former Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abused him as a teenager when McCarrick led the Newark Archdiocese in the 1990s. It also says Vatican officials were aware of McCarrick’s behavior, yet continued to promote him to higher positions.
“He never would have been able to do the things he did, and rise up the ranks the way he did, without their complicity or consent, implied or otherwise,” John Bellocchio, the abuse survivor, said at a news conference.
That’s just a snippet of the allegations contained in over 40 lawsuits filed since Sunday under a newly-enacted New Jersey law that opens a two-year window for survivors to sue their abusers, regardless of when the abuse occurred.
Other organizations named in complaints include the Boy Scouts, Salem County and the Admiral Farragut Academy, which used to have a campus in Ocean County.
The law also allows child sex abuse victims to sue until they turn 55, or within seven years of their first realization the abuse caused them harm, whichever gives them more time.
The previous limit to file suit was two years. Many survivors were prevented from suing in the past because they didn’t act during the allotted time period.
The Fortney sisters’ accounts were among hundreds in last year’s investigation on clergy sexual abuse conducted by a Pennsylvania grand jury that provided impetus for New Jersey lawmakers to act.
In total, about two-dozen states have changed their laws on statutes of limitations this year amid growing awareness that many survivors need years, or even decades, to process what happened to them and come forward.
Several states have created lookback windows for lawsuits, as New Jersey has. Others, like Pennsylvania, have not. The Fortney sisters grew up in Dauphin County, Pa., but sued in New Jersey because Pennsylvania lawmakers last month declined to pass a lookback provision.
“I don’t believe that I will ever be free of the feelings of shame and guilt completely, as a result of his abuse and mental manipulation,” Patty Fortney-Julius said Monday. “But I do believe that, because of this new window legislation, that more healing will come for me and my family.”
In an emailed statement, the Newark Archdiocese said it “will continue to cooperate and work with victims, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations made and bring closure to victims.”
The Diocese of Harrisburg said in an emailed statement that it hadn’t received the Fortneys’ complaint yet and deferred comment.
“The Fortney family, as well as all survivors of child abuse, have access to professional therapy and counseling services, at no cost to them, through the Diocese,” the statement said. “The Diocese of Harrisburg will continue to do all we can to support survivors of child sexual abuse and to ensure all youth in our care are safe.”
McCarrick — who also served as archbishop of Washington, D.C., and was one of the highest-ranking, most visible Catholic Church officials in the United States — was removed from the clergy in February at age 89 after a church investigation determined he sexually abused minors, as well as adult seminarians.
In the lawsuit he filed Monday, Bellocchio alleges McCarrick sexually assaulted him when he was 14 and McCarrick was visiting Bellocchio’s parish in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Bellocchio’s attorney, Jeff Anderson, said his client’s lawsuit is the first to name McCarrick as a defendant.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
Resources for child and adult survivors of sexual violence
New Jersey Clergy Abuse Hotline (run by state Attorney General’s Office): (855) 363-6548
The State Police lists sexual violence contact numbers by county
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), New Jersey Chapter; SNAP also has chapters throughout the U.S. and abroad
NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJ CASA) 24-hour hotline: (800) 601-7200
Childhelp’s National Child Abuse Hotline: (800) 422-4453
RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE (4673)
Anti-Violence Project Hotline for LGBTQ & HIV-affected survivors: (212) 714-1141
National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233
The National Center for Victims of Crime also lists resources for crime reporting, suicide prevention and other services on its website.