What is the Deadline for Filing Sexual Assault Civil Suits in New Jersey?
Sexual abuse and sexual harassment are difficult subjects to discuss, which is why so many of those who were victimized do not speak up about the incident for years, even decades, after it happened. This is even more common in children.
Unfortunately, until 2019, the statute of limitations for sexual assault survivors to file civil suits was two years, and for childhood survivors, the statute of limitations ended when the survivor reached age 20.
Because of this very common reaction to a crime that impacts the victim’s life forever, combined with growing investigations into religious organizations that pointed to untold numbers of crimes that were primarily against children in decades past, the state of New Jersey extended the statute of limitations to seven years to pursue civil action, whereas adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have until age 55 or seven years from the time they became aware that the trauma is linked with financial harm.
This permanent extension, which was signed by Governor Phil Murphy in 2019, also offered a two-year window for civil lawsuits by survivors who do not fit into either of those categories and were previously barred by the pre-2019 statute of limitations because too much time had gone by since the crime. This third option provides an opportunity for those who may have suffered abuse decades earlier and have stayed silent to get the justice they deserve, both from the abuser and the institution that protected them. That window is closing November 30, 2021.
Although an adult’s decision to speak out about the trauma suffered as a child is, by its nature, a difficult one, and the problem of communicating this becomes more difficult when the abuser was a trusted individual, such as a member of the religious clergy, this may be the last opportunity for many Garden State residents who survived sexual abuse to seek justice against the abuser and those who protected that abuser, and to receive compensation for a crime that had a strong negative impact on their lives.
Clergy Abuse in New Jersey
With investigations worldwide into clergy abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church, the state of New Jersey subpoenaed the largest Catholic diocese in the state in 2018.
Specifically, Garden State leaders cited a 2018 grand jury report in neighboring Pennsylvania that listed 300 priests who sexually abused over 1,000 children for more than 70 years and whose crimes were hidden by church officials.
The New Jersey decision to subpoena the Archdiocese of Newark to obtain records was only one step in what has become a lengthy and far-reaching investigation into possible clergy sex abuse cases throughout the entire state, including those that occurred in thousands of Catholic churches and schools.
A 2019 report by the New Jersey Catholic Church named 188 priests, and a report by media outlet ProPublica in 2020 found 200 Catholic priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing parishioners. ProPublica media partner, Patch.com, stated that most of those priests listed had already been named in the New Jersey Catholic Church report from 2019 and disturbingly, that several of the priests switched assignments between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
But sexual abuse occurs in all kinds of religious institutions, not just the Roman Catholic Church.
In New Jersey, a Presbyterian minister was accused of sexually abusing people during counseling sessions in 2019. In this case, no public charges were filed, but leaders at the Elizabeth Presbytery, which oversees 41 churches in three New Jersey counties, stated that multiple instances of sexual misconduct were reported to the presbytery. An investigation found the charges were credible, and a hearing was set. The day before the hearing date, the minister denounced his membership and ordination and moved.
Holding Abusive Clergy and Those Who Protect Them Accountable
Sexual abuse by religious leaders may be difficult to discuss, but it is a crime. Although many survivors may have held onto their story for too long to see criminal punishment for the abuser, owing to statutes of limitations, a civil lawsuit may provide another means of achieving the kind of justice that survivors need: accountability for the crime and compensation for the impact it had on their lives.
Just as the problem of sexual abuse occurs in all faiths, the abuser may take on different roles in the religious institution. The predator may sometimes be a priest or minister, but there are many people involved in religious institutions, particularly with faith-based instruction of children. Those who were victimized in a different situation, such as weekly practice for the church choir, and were targeted by a predator who was not a priest, and instead were victimized by a choir director, were still abused, and that abuse is still a crime.
Here are some common leadership positions for religious institutions:
- Youth leaders
- Sunday school/religious education teachers
- Choir directors
- Camp counselors
How Does Clergy Abuse Happen?
Since a 2002 Boston Globe investigative reporting team published a series of articles that detailed abuses by a former Boston priest and connected him to the sexual abuse of over 100 children in parishes scattered around the metropolitan area, there has been a tremendous amount of coverage of the abuse of children in the Catholic Church.
Even more disturbing, the problem appears to be worldwide, with cover-up for the crimes going all the way to the Vatican.
In a study on how sexual abuse of children occurs in religious settings by two Canadian sociologists, the researchers studied several Christian sects, Hindu ashrams, and cults. They came across a few consistent patterns:
- Predators take time grooming a child before the abuse. This usually means manipulating the child with gifts and attention. This process may take over weeks and even years.
- Before there is sexual touching, there is friendly touching, such as a secret handshake. This also is done over a good length of time.
- The predator is often, in addition, cultivating the children’s caregivers, making the abuse more likely and giving the child less chance to stop the abuse.
- A deep-seated faith in the religion can be translated to a deep-seated faith in the person who is actually a predator. It is often unquestioned by the children, by the parents, and by staff working for the religious group.
- Once the predator has gained access to a child, they forge a bond with the child to gain trust and compliance. One researcher said that by the time abuse happens, the child often feels that they gave consent.
- Predators in these religious settings will draw on their power in the religious community and their important role in the spiritual life of those in the community, to create confusion on what is clearly wrong and what is right.
- Family members often do not believe the accused, instead believing in the predator out of their faith in the religious institution. The report points to disbelief of the victims in Ireland, where most of the country sided with the church when reports came out in the 1990s; and in Nigeria, where ministers were able to sexually abuse children under the guise of exorcisms from demons.
- Predators do not conform to a personality type or have common traits with other abusers, so they are more difficult to identify.
- Children are taught by their caregivers and families to avoid strangers, but the many cases of clergy sexual abuse point to a need to rethink who poses a threat to children.
Types of Clergy Abuse
Clergy abuse may take many forms, including:
- Unwanted touching, with or without clothing
- Sexual threats
- Sexual harassment
- Indecent exposure
- Lewd acts or comments
- Statutory rape
- Sexual assault
New Jersey Clergy Abuse Lawyers at the Law Offices of Harold J. Gerr Advocate for Clergy Abuse Victims
If you or a loved one has been the victim of any kind of clergy abuse, consult the New Jersey clergy abuse lawyers at the Law Offices of Harold J. Gerr. With compassionate support and the fierce representation that victims need, our lawyers have a long history of fighting successfully for victims of sexual abuse. Call us today at 877-249-4600 or 732-537-8570 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Highland Park, New Jersey, we serve clients in New Brunswick, Somerset, Piscataway, Edison, South River, Sayreville, Metuchen, East Brunswick, South Plainfield, Fords, Middlesex, Old Bridge, Iselin, Bound Brook, Perth Amboy, Colonia, Elizabeth, and Newark.