New Jersey is set to become the latest state to expand its statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse to seek justice against those who have harmed them. The law will apply not only to abusers themselves, but to any persons or organizations that were negligent in allowing the abuse of a child to occur, such as a school, athletic league, or church.
The proposed law, which has been stalled in the New Jersey legislature for almost 20 years, will extend the time victims have to sue to age 55, or 7 years from the discovery of the connection between their psychological injuries and their abuse (known as “the discovery rule”).
Critically, the bill will also open a two-year window during which anyone can file suit for damages arising from sexual abuse, including anyone whose claims were previously barred by the statute of limitations. This measure will allow many survivors of abuse access to the courts when it had previously been denied to them.
Recent studies show that the average survivor of sexual abuse reports his or her abuse as a child after the age of 50. This law, like many others now being passed and considered nationally, recognizes that child sexual abuse is something that people are not typically ready to deal with until much later in life. In the case of many survivors, it will also shift the cost of treating the effects of sexual abuse from the State to those who are actually responsible for the abuse.
The law will affect hundreds, if not thousands, of children sexually abused by priests in the five New Jersey Catholic dioceses. Recently, the New Jersey Catholic Conference announced voluntary settlement funds to resolve claims of child sexual abuse by clergy in an abbreviated process that does not allow for a discovery of information held in the secret files of New Jersey’s bishops. However, under the new law, plaintiffs would be allowed access to that information and the public will finally know what Catholic leaders have done to enable the abuse of New Jersey’s children for decades (and what, if anything, they have done to prevent it).
It also abolishes the doctrine of charitable immunity in cases of child sexual abuse. Previously, under New Jersey law, a non-profit organization could claim immunity for alleged negligence in the commission of crimes and against children. It will also enact additional protections for victims who file lawsuits, including barring evidence of the victim’s sexual history.
The bill has passed both houses of the legislature and is expected to be signed by the governor when it hits his desk.