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.

“In every state that I’ve testified in, and I’ve testified in several, including New Jersey, the Catholic church is the lead lobbyist against the elimination of the statutes of limitations,” says Robert Hoatson, a former priest with the Archdiocese of Newark and the founding director of Road2Recovery, a nonprofit organization providing support and advocacy for victims of sexual abuse. He’s not alone in tagging the church as the bill’s major adversary, although insurance companies—which could be financially vulnerable if the church or other insured organizations were found culpable in a spate of civil lawsuits—are also fighting the legislation.

It “has always been the position of the church not to be supportive,” says Vitale of the bills’ history. Crawford agrees. “The lobbying arm of the Catholic church has vigorously opposed any amendments or changes to the law in every state with pending legislation,” he says.

That lobbying arm is the state Catholic Conferences, which represent the bishops of each state in public-policy matters. The New Jersey Catholic Conference has been vocal in opposing repeal of the state’s statute of limitations. They’ve sent their own lobbyists to testify against each iteration of the bill, and in 2013, they hired the powerful Trenton lobbying firm Princeton Public Affairs Group to assist them. Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, testified before the state Legislature in June 2012, asking, “How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50, or 60 years old?”  He went on to note that “statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.”

In fact, says Men in My Town author Keith Smith, whether a case is criminal or civil, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. “Just because I drag somebody into civil court and say it happened, I don’t automatically win—I have to prove my case,” he notes.

Smith actively supports the repeal fight in New Jersey and elsewhere, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012 despite the fact that he can’t bring his own abuser to justice.  In 1974, Smith, then 14, was abducted, beaten, and raped by a stranger (not a priest) who, miraculously, released him after a nearly three-hour ordeal. But in 1975, his abductor was beaten to death, a homicide that was never solved. To arrive at some sort of personal justice, Smith advocates. “I got involved with the bill,” he says, “because I can speak out.”

But would the law, if passed, actually promote justice? In his 2012 testimony, Brannigan claimed that it would not protect a single child, but instead would generate an enormous transfer of money in lawsuits to lawyers. Indeed, the fear of paying out vast sums of money in lawsuits—whether to lawyers or victims—has prompted a number of dioceses around the country to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows them to negotiate settlements rather than have the cases go before a judge or jury.  In addition to potentially saving money, this tactic keeps cases out of the public eye.

“It’s only when these cases actually get to court that the truth is exposed, because of the process of discovery,” Crawford says. And, he adds, exposing the truth—along with the perpetrators—may be the only way to promote lasting institutional change and protect children against future abuse.

For many victims, unshrouding the truth is more important than any monetary payout. “I don’t want money,” says Fred Marigliano. “I will have peace when I have justice.”

In 2015, to shed light on the struggle to repeal the statute of limitations, Marigliano walked the length of the state, from the Cape May Lighthouse to Mahwah. Every day, he says, people came up to him with stories of their own abuse or the abuse of those they loved. “One lady was following us in her car for quite some time,” he remembers. Eventually, she pulled over and approached Marigliano. “My husband was raped by a priest when he was a child,” she told him, “and it ruined my marriage.”

Arthur Baselice, too, is a victim of sexual violence once removed. His son, Arthur, overdosed on heroin in 2006 after years of abuse by a priest who, Baselice says, introduced him to the drug.  What Baselice, a resident of South Jersey, wants most is “accountability and transparency,” but he’s hamstrung, he says, by the statute of limitations. Asked whether he thinks the bill will pass, he states simply, “It has to pass.”

But even some who’ve fought diligently for its passage have doubts. “The Catholic church has a tremendous amount of political power in our state,” says New Jersey SNAP director Crawford. He and former priest Hoatson believe that, even if the bill passes the Legislature this year, it’s hard to imagine that Governor Chris Christie would sign it into law. (The governor’s office would not comment for this story.)

Still, movement in neighboring states offers some reason for hope. In February of this year, prompted by a statewide investigation into allegations of widespread sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, the Pennsylvania Senate revived legislation that would raise the filing limit for old cases of abuse from 30 years to 50 and would completely eliminate the statute of limitations in future cases. And in January, New York governor Andrew Cuomo expressed his support of a similar bill in his state, known as the Child Victims Act.

It remains possible that the state Legislature may pass a compromise version of the bill, perhaps setting an age limit on past cases of abuse, as in Oregon. In fact, according to Crawford, who met with Vitale in February, the bill’s supporters in the Legislature are considering a potential amendment that would set such a limit in New Jersey at age 55. “We’re still building consensus and support,” notes Vitale, who thinks the bill could pass “this spring or fall” but isn’t making any promises.

The church promises to look closely at the latest bill. “We have and will continue to work with Senator Vitale on the legislation,” says Brannigan. “We are currently waiting for the latest amendments to be shared so we have the opportunity to continue to work with the senator on the legislation.”

For Marigliano, who says he’d be loath to consider any amendments, it all comes down to justice. One of  “the toughest things I ever had to do was to testify three times,” he says.  “But I don’t care if I have to testify 1,000 times—I’ll never give up.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a longtime contributor.

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  1. chuck9896

    “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”.

    So, unlike many states, a person sexually abused in NJ as a child has 2 full years to file suit after they realize the abuse is connected to their damages. So a 60 year old person can sue. NY for example gives a person only 2 years after they turn 18. So what is the issue? NJ has a very liberal pro plaintiff statute of limitations. Why does it have to be changed? This article is very misleading. This bill would only put money into the pockets of lawyers.