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NJ senate panel to further examine allowing suits against the church

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

By Terrence Dopp
tdopp@sjnewsco.com

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 from litigation.

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," said Garner.

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, to rape.

Alana H. Goebel, assistant director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or njcasa, applauded any end to charitable immunity.

"Sexual violence is extremely damaging to its survivors," Goebels said. "To have an organization immune violates the survivors."

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 borough.

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 abuse.

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 seeking comment.

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.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org