Support Given for Suits Claiming Child Abuse by Charities
By LAURA MANSNERUS - The New York Times
November 9, 2004
TRENTON, Nov. 8 - John W. Hardwicke Jr. describes his two years
at the American Boychoir School as a hellish series of encounters
with pedophiles on the school's staff, led by the choirmaster
who was in charge of the boys 24 hours a day. For more than
30 years, Mr. Hardwicke says, the consequences have been devastating.
In most states, Mr. Hardwicke would be free to sue the school
for negligence in its hiring and oversight of the choirmaster.
But New Jersey continues to provide a legal shield to negligence
lawsuits against charitable institutions like the Boychoir
School, the state's Roman Catholic archdiocese, the Boy Scouts
and other groups that work with children.
That soon may change. On Monday, a General Assembly committee,
after three hours of wrenching stories from more than a dozen
victims, approved a measure that would allow many people sexually
abused as children to go to court after years of silence.
A favorable vote by the full Assembly, which is expected soon,
would send the bill to the governor's desk.
And the State Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider its
much-disputed decision in 1984 to bar a suit against the Archdiocese
of Newark by the family of a boy who had been sexually abused
by a priest. At the end of this month, the court will hear
arguments in a new case, which was brought by Mr. Hardwicke.
Donald B. Edwards, the president of the renowned boarding
school in Princeton, N.J., said he deeply regretted the abuse
that took place at the school long before he arrived. But
he opposes allowing lawsuits to be filed decades after the
He noted that the accused choirmaster left the country in
1982 for Canada and that the board members at that time are
all dead. "The price is being paid by people who had
absolutely nothing to do with this," he said.
Mr. Hardwicke, a graphic artist who lives in western Maryland
with his wife, Terri, has been fighting for redress from the
Boychoir School since 1999. It was then, he said, that a therapist
helped him trace his emotional problems to his abuse at the
school where he enrolled 30 years earlier as a 12-year-old.
At 47, he said in an interview, "there is not a moment
of my life that I am not aware of it."
"They hired pedophile after pedophile," he said.
"Kids came to headmasters and said, 'I'm being molested,'
and they didn't do anything and they didn't do anything and
they didn't do anything. So they're just as guilty as the
His case exemplifies the conflict between compensating victims
of abuse and preventing money meant for charitable works from
being depleted by legal expenses. The state's courts had come
down on the side of protecting the institutions, and Mr. Hardwicke's
suit was dismissed by the Superior Court in Mercer County.
This year, however, an Appellate Division panel overturned
that decision, allowing Mr. Hardwicke to continue his suit
under the Child Sexual Abuse Act, which applies in cases of
abuse by someone serving as the child's caretaker.
Mr. Edwards said he remembered the sickening feeling that
came over him after first speaking to Mr. Hardwicke, shortly
after he had come to the Boychoir School. He knew nothing,
he said, of any abuse by the former choirmaster, Donald Hanson,
or other staff members.
Since then, Mr. Edwards said, the school has been notified
of "a dozen to two dozen" other complaints of sexual
abuse through 1982, when Mr. Hanson was dismissed, and has
settled several suits, one for $850,000.
Mr. Edwards said he feared that, whether by legislation or
a Supreme Court ruling, there would be more. Under the Child
Sexual Abuse Act, with a statute of limitations that begins
when the victim becomes aware of the connection between his
childhood abuse and more recent psychological problems, "it
is possible for causes of action to be brought endlessly,"
he said. "That doesn't seem fair."
"I don't know how you defend a negligence charge if
most of the trustees are dead,'' he said. "Where are
As Mr. Edwards spoke, the Rev. Michael Prewitt, a board member
whose son attends the school, nodded. As for the effects of
sexual abuse, "my pastoral care has taught me,"
said Mr. Prewitt, a Presbyterian minister. "I've been
in the room. I've heard the pain. I know this is a lifelong
But he said that he was impressed by the school's safeguards
- staff members are not allowed alone in a room with a student,
for example - and trusted his son's teachers.
The New Jersey Catholic Conference, like the Boychoir School,
said it had encouraged reporting of abuse and taken steps
to prevent it. Lawyers involved in the Hardwicke case say
it is not likely to affect the church except in cases where
it was acting in loco parentis, as in a boarding school or
The Catholic Conference has filed a friend-of-the-court brief
in the case, however, siding with the Boychoir School. And
while it does not oppose the charitable immunity legislation
entirely, it opposes the provision that allows the law to
operate retroactively in some cases.
In a statement Monday to the Assembly Financial Institutions
and Insurance Committee, the conference urged a cutoff date
that would bar suits for incidents before 1992, when the state's
Child Sexual Abuse Law was passed. It was the revelation in
2002 that Catholic clergy had abused thousands of children
nationwide that prompted many in New Jersey to come forward.
The Archdiocese of Newark has settled many cases, agreeing
last month to pay $1.1 million to 10 people who claimed that
they were abused by priests. Many other cases are proceeding
in court; last week, a Superior Court judge rejected a motion
by the Diocese of Paterson to dismiss a suit by 25 men.
But many who testified Monday had a message that could not
be answered by legislation. Richard Schultz, 40, said he and
his younger brother were abused in their Bergen County parish
25 years ago. His family lost a case against the Archdiocese
of Newark when the Supreme Court in 1984 upheld the state's
charitable immunity doctrine.
His brother, Christopher, committed suicide two months before
his 13th birthday. "If the Catholic Church and other
charities had done the right things for victims," Mr.
Schultz said, "there would be no secret backroom deals
and no massive lawsuits."