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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 abuse.

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 perpetrators."

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 the witnesses?"

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 burden."

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 camp.

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."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests