|NJ senate panel
to further examine allowing suits against the church
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
By Terrence Dopp
TRENTON -- Attacking what some call an impediment to lawsuits
by victims of clergy sex abuse, the state Senate is considering
changes to a 1958 law protecting non-profit organizations
New Jersey's "Charitable Immunity Act," one of
only nine laws in the nation protecting charities from members'
suits, is tantamount to government protection of abusers,
according to proponents of the measure.
Under the plan before the Legislature, sexual abuse would
nullify the legal shield.
"We've seen this from churches, schools, scouting groups
and other charities trying to protect themselves," said
Richard Garner, a New York City psychologist who counsels
victims of boyhood sexual abuse.
He said the 1958 immunity law creates a state-sanctioned
"stone wall" before victims.
"Not only do predators victimize them. But also the
institutions in which the abuse occurs again victimize them,"
Deliberations on the bill come after a 20-year saga for the
Roman Catholic Church, which critics accuse of knowingly shuffling
suspected pedophile priests between parishes.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee opted Monday to
put off a vote on the bill until March in order to make it
retroactive to past cases only now coming to light years after
happening. In it's current form it would only deal with future
instances of molestation.
Several of the victims said they were molested both on and
off church property in a number of parishes statewide. The
abuse ranged from touching and providing them with liquor,
Alana H. Goebel, assistant director of the New Jersey Coalition
Against Sexual Assault, or njcasa, applauded any end to charitable
"Sexual violence is extremely damaging to its survivors,"
Goebels said. "To have an organization immune violates
Attempts to repeal the immunity statutes, which would only
apply to abuse cases, come as a crescendo to the two most
active years of the priest molestation cases. Those looking
to end charitable protections in New Jersey point to a case
in Boston where Church leaders paid a collective $85 million
to abuse survivors.
But the scandal has hit the Garden State as well. John Banko,
56, a Catholic priest convicted in Dec. 2002 of molesting
an altar boy in Milford, was the first clergyman convicted
in New Jersey since the scandal heated up in 2002. A jury
found him guilty of molesting an altar boy at St. Edward the
Confessor Roman Catholic Church the small Hunterdon County
In another abuse-related case, the Camden Diocese in March
2003 paid $880,000 to 23 plaintiffs and their lawyers to settle
abuse allegations and cover attorneys' fees. A spokesman for
the diocese said the payment was made in order to allow church
officials to discuss with the victims ways to prevent future
Diocese elders found themselves barred from contacting victims
due to the ongoing litigation, the spokesman said.
He referred all comments on the legislation to the Catholic
Conference of New Jersey, which did not return a phone call
The lawmaker heading efforts to rewrite the law said the
statute is out of touch with the current climate.
"The Charitable Immunity Act was originally designed
to remove the threat of lawsuits to charitable organizations
by beneficiaries of that organization," said Sen. Joseph
Vitale, D-Middlesex, sponsor of the plan. "However, with
the increased prevalence of sex-abuse cases coming to light,
charitable immunity edicts across the country have been coming
under closer scrutiny than ever before."
Allegations of abuse by priests began in the mid-1980s and
has continued since.
In the first case of clergy abuse to grip national attention,
Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe pleaded guilty in 1985 to
molesting 11 boys in his parish.
Church officials held several meetings over the next 15 years
aimed at ridding the Church of predatory clergymen but a number
of cases continue to become public.
In 2002, Boston Bishop Bernard Law acknowledges shuffling
a suspected molesting priest between churches rather than
firing him. Law later resigned after seeking bankruptcy protection
for the Boston Archdiocese.
Copyright 2004 NJ.com.