Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Last Taboo

For victims of childhood sex abuse, the pain can linger for a lifetime. Now they want to change the law blocking legal action against their abusers.

"I don't care if I have to testify 1,000 times–I'll never give up."
"I don't care if I have to testify 1,000 times–I'll never give up."
Photo by Chad Hunt

Fred Marigliano remembers afternoons in the Times Square movie theater when his conscious mind would separate from his body, float to the ceiling, and look down on the shadowy row of seats where Father Contardo Omarini, his parish priest, was sexually assaulting two preteen boys. One of those boys was Marigliano himself. Later, long after the years of abuse had ended, he learned that this state of dissociation was a normal response to stress that otherwise might be unendurable. As a kid in Plainfield, though, he wondered if he might be going crazy.

Today, at 69, Marigliano, now a resident of Green Brook, tells the story of his three years of repeated abuse with remarkable equilibrium. But for decades he didn’t talk about it at all, his silence imposed by fear, guilt and shame. It wasn’t until his own kids were in their preteen years and Omarini phoned to say he’d like to meet them that Marigliano admitted the abuse to his parents and his wife. (Omarini, who died in 1995, was never charged in any abuse case.)

Marigliano is not an outlier in hiding his abuse. In fact, the harm inflicted by childhood sexual abuse persists well beyond the crime itself. Without treatment, victims can experience a lifetime of depression, anxiety, or both. They can find it hard to establish or sustain long-term relationships, and they’re particularly vulnerable to addiction, alcoholism and suicide.

It’s not unusual for those abused as children to keep the crimes committed against them secret for years. While men and women suffer these repercussions more or less equally, abuse also leads many men to question their masculinity, a state of affairs that makes speaking out particularly difficult.

“The sexual abuse and exploitation of men is really our last taboo in this country,” says Keith Rennar Brennan of Bayonne, who claims he was repeatedly abused as a child. The crime is also startlingly widespread, affecting one in six men, according to the nonprofit National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Currently, New Jersey victims of sexual abuse have only two years in which to file a civil suit after they first recognize a connection between their abuse and profound personal problems like depression, anxiety, PTSD, divorce and addiction. But the law doesn’t take into account how difficult it is for victims of this particular crime to come forward. In addition to suffering fear and shame, says Keith Smith, author of the sexual-abuse memoir Men in My Town, many male victims “feel complicit in their own abuse.”

Since 2010, survivors of abuse and their supporters have been fighting for passage of a bill that would remove the state’s two-year statute of limitations. Given the reticence of men to come out about their abuse (which is not to say that women find it easy) and the near-universal horror with which child sexual abuse is regarded in our culture, you’d think such legislation would be a cinch to pass. It’s been anything but.

The latest version of the bill in question, S280 (known in the Assembly as A865), had its genesis in 1999, when Mark Crawford, now director of the New Jersey chapter of the support organization Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), approached Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge) about doing away with the statute of limitations. Like Marigliano, Crawford had been abused by his parish priest for many years. In 1983, at 19, he’d met with Newark bishop Jerome Pechillo and Frank McNulty, then vicar of priests in the Newark Archdiocese, and told them about his abuse, expecting that they would report it to law enforcement. To his knowledge, no action was taken at the time.

Sixteen years later, in 1999, Crawford picked up a newspaper and saw a photo of his alleged abuser, then a hospital chaplain, posing with Newark archbishop Theodore McCarrick and a group of children. “I was infuriated,” Crawford remembers. When he met with Vitale, he told him, “This is wrong. They’ve lied to me over and over again, and this guy’s still in ministry; he’s still a threat. The laws have to change.” (It wasn’t until 2002, Crawford says, that the church reported his story of abuse to the police; by then, it was too late for legal action. According to a report in the Star-Ledger, the offending priest resigned from the ministry that year and later became a conductor for NJ Transit.)

Crawford believes that until the church and other powerful organizations can be more widely held legally accountable, those institutions will continue to aid and abet abusers in the interest of protecting their own reputations. With Crawford’s support, Vitale focused first on changing the law that gave charitable organizations immunity in civil cases. In 2006, the Charitable Immunity Act was amended to exclude cases of sexual abuse.

Then, in 2010, Vitale and fellow senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) introduced bill S2405, aiming to repeal the statute of limitations in civil cases involving sexual abuse. While there are no such limitations on filing criminal sexual abuse cases in New Jersey, criminal cases become increasingly difficult to prosecute the longer a victim waits to file. That’s because essential evidence—fingerprints, DNA, eyewitness testimony—tends to disappear over time. Civil cases, on the other hand, have a lower standard of proof; they require only that a plaintiff show it was more likely than not that the defendant caused the alleged harm. Given that many sexual-abuse victims can’t speak out early enough to file a criminal case, their only hope for justice in the Garden State could be a civil suit unencumbered by a statute of limitations.

The vast majority of states impose some sort of statute of limitation on civil sexual-abuse cases, though the statutes vary widely. In Mississippi, victims have three years to file suit after reaching the age of majority; in Montana, they have three years after discovering a connection between the abuse and some sort of personal/emotional injury; in Massachusetts, victims can file within 35 years of the abuse. New Jersey isn’t the only state where activists and legislators are working to change the law. Similar bills are pending in Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania. In January, a new bill passed in California, making it one of only three states with no statute of limitations in civil sexual-abuse cases (along with Maine and Utah).

But in New Jersey, S2405 never made it to a vote and eventually expired. Two subsequent similar bills—in 2012 and 2014—met the same fate.  As of this writing, S280 is awaiting review by the Senate Judiciary Committee; if it makes it to a review, it might then be voted on by the Senate and eventually be joined by the Assembly version.

The bill’s troubled history has been a source of enormous frustration for Brennan, who testified before the Judiciary Committee in 2010, alleging that he had been abused as a child, first by the musical director of his church, Keith Pecklers, and then by his parish priest, Thomas Stanford.  The son of devout Catholic parents, Brennan believed for years that he was alone in his victimization. That changed in 2002 when, at the age of 39, he watched a televised report about dozens of  Boston-area priests accused of sexually abusing minors—a story broken by the Boston Globe that inspired the 2015 film Spotlight. “When I heard that there were priests who were being accused of sexually assaulting boys in particular,” he says, “I was just absolutely stunned.”

The revelation triggered a flood of memories, but another six years would pass before Brennan could muster the emotional wherewithal to speak out about his abuse.  He “found his voice,” as he puts it, in 2008, after watching another news report on the sexual-abuse crisis. This time it was the identity of one of the talking heads that floored him; the Vatican’s spokesperson was none other than Keith Pecklers, now a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

“After decades of suffering from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, self-mutilation, an eating disorder and the fear that my abusers had given me AIDS,” Brennan says, “finally the light broke through, and I was determined to hold the two men who had abused me responsible for their actions.”

That same year, Brennan, a fashion designer, started work on a documentary film about his abuse and survival (it would be released in 2011 as Of God and Gucci). He also hired a lawyer and received a low six-figure settlement in October 2008 from the Society of Jesus and the Newark Archdiocese. When Brennan accepted the settlement, he says, it was with the stipulation that both priests be “held accountable” for the alleged abuse by submitting to questions from their respective church review boards and by being removed from any positions that would afford them access to children.

At the time, Stanford was director of Catholic Cemeteries in New Jersey and was also teaching religious classes in a parish in Wayne. After the review, he was fired from both positions. In published reports, Pecklers doesn’t deny he abused Brennan but notes that he himself was a minor at the time. Brennan maintains that the abuse continued after Pecklers turned 18.

In 2010, Brennan agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Trenton, which at the time was considering the first version of the bill. Throughout the day, discussion of S2405 was repeatedly delayed.  When Brennan finally stood up to testify, he looked out at an audience that seemed poised for a nap. His testimony, which a Star Ledger story described as “a bombshell,” woke them up.

The fireworks, however, proved insufficient to move the Legislature to action. The forces in opposition to S2405 had some heavy artillery of their own and continue to wield it to discourage the legislation.

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