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Justice for Abused Children

Friday, August 11, 2006
The Times of Trenton, NJ

The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision earlier this week in the American Boychoir School child molestation case will continue the painful saga of an abuse case that stretches back to the 1970s. But it also will correct a flaw in an old state law that basically let institutions where abuse took place off the hook.

The outcome of the decision should mean that charitable institutions, including schools and churches, will have to take more responsibility when it comes to hiring and monitoring its employees as it pertains to their conduct with children. And as burdensome as that may be, it serves the greater good -- the welfare of helpless children, who become the prey of molesters.

In a 5-1 ruling, the state's high court said that John Hardwicke of White Hall, Md., will have his day in court in his suit against the school where he was a student from 1970 to 1971. It was during that time, according to the lawsuit, that Hardwicke was repeatedly abused by the school's choirmaster, Donald Hanson. A trial judge, however, had dismissed Hardwicke's suit, citing the state's immunity laws that protect schools, churches and other charitable institutions.

The Legislature, to its credit and despite strong opposition from charitable institutions, passed a law later signed by acting Gov. Richard Codey that removed the immunity ban but left in place the time limits for filing such lawsuits to two years after the victim realized the harm from the abuse. But in her ruling, Chief Justice Deborah Poritz wrote that the 1992 law (on time limits) and others enacted to protect children, including Megan's Law, "tell us that a paramount goal of the Legislature is to keep children safe and to identify those who abuse them as well as those who facilitate the abuse."

The high court's majority also pointed out that the "ironclad" defense of immunity was an outcome never intended by lawmakers. For that reason, they specifically rejected a controversial 1984 state Supreme Court decision that dismissed a suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Newark brought by the family of a boy who committed suicide after being sexually abused by a priest from the diocese.

To its credit, the current administration at the Boychoir School has taken the high road in the wake of the ruling. Donald Ed wards, president of the Princeton Township school, said the institution "has been very open about the story of Donald Hanson's sexual abuse of students in the 1970s. Hanson's actions have made victims not only of the boys he abused but also of the school he betrayed. We hope it will be possible to re solve the case in a manner that allows Mr. Hardwicke to get on with his life and allows the school to ad vance its educational mission of building lives of achievement and character through the power of music."

As for Donald Hanson, he was forced to resign in 1982 after two families reported that he had abused their children. He has never responded to Hardwicke's lawsuit and was last reported to be living in Canada.

© 2006 The Times of Trenton