This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe.
Rev. Michael Fugee is a New Jersey priest who was put on trial for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy, and later confessed to fondling the child while he was under his care… twice.
Fugee was convicted, but that conviction was later overturned by an appeals court. Instead of a retrial, Fugee was allowed to sign a binding agreement not to work with or around children. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested last month after it was revealed he attended weekend youth retreats on behalf of St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck.
Now, there’s no indication Fugee engaged in this type of behavior this time around, but what if he did? And what if those victims, traumatized by shame and humiliation, weren’t able to muster the strength to come forward for many years?
Well, they’d be out of luck in New Jersey, and the Catholic Church is spending lots of money to keep it that way.
Currently, the statute of limitations for a victim of child-abuse in the state isn’t ten years or even five years. It’s two years. If abuse victims don’t come forward within two years of their 18th birthday, they’re out of luck, which puts us way out of step with neighboring states. In New York, victims have until they turn 23 to file suit. In Pennsylvania and Connecticut, they have until they’re 30. Delaware doesn’t even have a limit.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-19th) wants to do something about that. He is sponsoring legislation that would extend the window for statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to 30 years.
“Protect the child molesters” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible that I know of, but the New Jersey Catholic Conference seems to be acting like it does, hiring the most expensive and powerful lobbying firm in Trenton, Princeton Public Affairs, to fight against Vitale’s bill
This isn’t a New Jersey-specific issue. The Catholic Church has been active in pushing back proposals that lengthen the time allowed for victims of alleged abuse to come forward. And in addition to New Jersey, high-priced lobbyists have been hired in Colorado and New York to fight similar attempts.
Their position isn’t about protecting kids. It isn’t even as much about protecting priests anymore. It’s about money, pure and simple. Since the first instance of child abuse came to light, the Catholic Church has spent $2.5 billion on legal fees, settlements and prevention efforts related to sexual abuse.
We know that it’s not easy for some victims to come forward. Mike Crawford was only 13 when he said his priest fondled him. He wasn’t able to muster the strength to tell anyone until his early adulthood, which made it too late to prosecute. He now heads the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and has been an outspoken advocate of extending the statute of limitations in New Jersey.
It seems to make common sense to anyone that doesn’t wear a frock and molest little kids. By extending the window for victims to come forward, we’d be allowing a judge, not a priest, to look at the evidence, review the relevant facts, and make a judgment as each individual case warrants it.
“People deserve their day in court,” Crawford said, and I couldn’t agree more. After all, the Bible calls for the death penalty for child molesters, saying “it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”
No one is calling for that. All we want is for victims to be heard. Is that too much to ask?
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.