Sex abuse survivors await Murphy’s signature on N.J. statute of limitations bill

Listen 4:18
As a child attending Catholic school, Todd Kostrub was abused by a Franciscan brother from 1974-1986. He's now one of many victims awaiting Governor Murphy's signature on a bill to extend the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

As a child attending Catholic school, Todd Kostrub was abused by a Franciscan brother from 1974-1986. He's now one of many victims awaiting Governor Murphy's signature on a bill to extend the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

On a recent afternoon, Todd Kostrub was looking at a photo of himself at seven years old, back when he attended a Catholic school in Roebling, N.J.

“Just got into second grade when those pictures were taken,” Kostrub said in his living room in Surf City.

That year — 1974 — was also when a Franciscan brother in the Kostrub’s parish began sexually abusing him. The abuse lasted until 1986.

It took Kostrub years to accept that he was abused and disclose it to close friends and family members.

And when he finally decided he wanted to sue his abuser in civil court, Kostrub learned that the state’s two-year statute of limitations had already run out.

“You don’t have a voice as a child,” he said. “And then to be an adult and be told I don’t have a voice was extremely painful.”

Many victims in the Garden State may get their voices back if a bill passed by both houses of the state Legislature is signed into law.

The legislation would dramatically expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse.

It would give child victims until age 55 or within seven years of realizing they were abused to file a civil lawsuit. It would also give survivors who were previously blocked from suing their perpetrators a two-year window to bring cases.

“It’s been introduced every voting session that we’ve had over the past 17 or 18 years,” said state Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, the lead sponsor of the bill.

There had never been enough support for the idea, Vitale said, because of opposition from the Catholic church. Now, he believes politicians have had enough.

“To a person, they all knew that it was happening, not just in the church but in the Boy Scouts and other institutions, and individual homes for that matter,” he said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports extending the state’s statute of limitations, but he has not yet signed the bill.

Advocates said last year’s explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse as well as media reporting on sexual harassment in the #MeToo era have shone a renewed light on sexual assault and abuse.

This year, 35 states are considering legislation to expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, according to Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the group Child USA.

“This is the most active year in history on statute of limitations issues,” Hamilton said.

New York recently expanded its civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse and dozens of other states including California and Virginia are considering similar measures.

“I think we’ve reached a point where the public is finally 100 percent behind the victims,” Hamilton said. “Nobody seems to be afraid anymore of the institutions.”

Yet some of those institutions are still pushing back.

The Catholic church in New Jersey, which has lobbied against similar proposals, now says it agrees with the idea in principle.

But it has asked legislators to delay the implementation of the law so that victims can first file claims through the church’s own victims’ compensation program rather than go to court.

“[It is] a program that provides victims with a speedy, transparent, and non-adversarial process to resolve their claims,” said Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, of the church’s fund. “Litigation for some victims is a re-traumatization with depositions and court appearances.”

But for victims like Todd Kostrub, money is not the main reason to sue.

Kostrub wants to file a civil lawsuit to learn why the church transferred his abuser from Michigan to New Jersey and find out who else knew about the abuse.

“I think it’ll help me as a victim and a survivor to know the full story,” he said. “It’s my story. I’m the one who paid the price for that story. He didn’t pay the price. I paid the price — with my soul.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.