Monday’s scheduled vote in the Assembly on a bill to remove the civil statute of limitations on certain offenses of child sexual abuse caps a milestone.
Advocates and attorneys who represent victims call it historic, saying lawmakers were finally listening and responding to survivors.
“It’s long overdue,” said plaintiff attorney Gregory Gianforcaro of Phillipsburg, who by his own count has settled more than 200 cases of childhood sexual abuse by clerics within the Catholic Church. “Legislators are finally understanding that the playing field has to be leveled—that there has to be a level field between the victim and the entity that was complicit in regards to the abuse.
“What this bill does, this is the legislators saying, ‘We hear your cries.’ We understand your arguments, and we acknowledge that it does take decades to come out. The average age of a victim of sexual abuse, when they are ... courageous enough to disclose the abuse, is 53.”
S-477 was approved by the full Senate by a 32-1 vote on March 14. Its counterpart, A-3648, is expected to pass the Assembly in similar fashion, and Gov. Murphy is expected to sign it.
The bill provides:
- A two-year window from enactment for the filing of any civil case alleging adult or minor sexual abuse that occurred in the past;
- That anyone under 18 who has been sexually abused in the past be able to bring a cause of action within the next two years;
- That those who were sexually abused in the past as minors and who miss the two-year filing window be able to bring their cause of action until age 55;
- That those 55 and older who allege delays in connecting past abuse to damages have an opportunity to seek justice through the courts—a period of seven years from the point they made that connection.
The law, if passed, would take effect Dec. 1, 2019.
New Jersey’s bill is something of a hybrid between laws in Delaware and Connecticut. Delaware’s legislation provided a two-year window, but it did not address victims of child sexual abuse who missed the filing window. Connecticut, after a scandal in 2002, changed its statute of limitations to allow victims of child sexual abuse to file claims until age 48.
Gianforcaro said he expects to see more sexual abuse cases seeking relief from the courts if and when S-477/A-3648 becomes law. He said he is already seeing an uptick in the number of ads on TV and the internet from attorneys seeking to represent sexual assault victims.
“There are going to be additional lawsuits,” he said. “However, this does not guarantee a win. Victims still have to prove their cases. All this is, is a door to the courthouse that absolutely did not exist before.”
Gianforcaro admits he never planned on a legal career quite like this one. But when his boyhood friends came forward with allegations of sexual abuse by a priest at St. James Parish in Mendham, the same Catholic Church he grew up in as an altar boy, Gianforcaro decided to represent them. It turned out to be not just a few cases, but dozens of his friends alleging abuse by Father James Hanley during his 10 years as pastor from 1973 to 1982. Hanley was never charged because the criminal statute of limitations had expired in all of the cases, according to Gianforcaro.
Gregory Gianforcaro, 11, right, stands next to his brother, Anthony Gianforcaro, 10, as altar boys at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham. Gregorgy Gianforcaro said he devoted his career to representing clerical sexual abuse victims because his earliest clients were boyhood friends from St. Joseph's Church who were sexually abused.
“What my clients have always told me is that priests do not become pedophiles,” he said. “Pedophiles become priests, because in their role as priests for centuries, they had unfettered access to children. That’s why there are certain professions where we see so much abuse of minors.”
He said that is another advantage of New Jersey’s bill—it would expand the categories of institutions accountable for sexual abuse.
“Our criminal laws acknowledge that every child could be subjected to being sexually abused,” Gianforcaro said. “No parent should have to worry that their child will be sexually abused by a teacher, by anyone, a priest, when they drop them off at school. It is supposed to be a safe haven, like their home. Their children should be educated, absolutely. But they should be protected first and foremost.
“Now with this bill, it expands those who may be liable for the abuse,” Gianforcaro said. “Anyone in a local, parental relationship that is supposed to protect everyone in their care, including schools and churches, will be obligated to make sure those children are safe from sexual abuse.”
The bill states in part: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, including but not limited to the 'New Jersey Tort Claims Act,' ... a public entity is liable in an action at law for an injury resulting from the commission of sexual assault, any other crime of a sexual nature, a prohibited sexual act as defined in section 2 of P.L.1992, c.7 (C.2A:30B-2), or sexual abuse as defined in section 1 of P.L.1992, c.109 (C.2A:61B-1)."
Timing—and momentum—were on the victims’ side, and why the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees earlier this month, according to Gianforcaro. At each hearing, dozens of victims shared heart-wrenching stories of childhood sexual abuse and the impact it had on their lives.
“I think now the reason the legislators are listening is because they’re reading about the Pennsylvania grand jury report,” Gianforcaro said, also noting the investigation into clerical sexual abuse by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.
In addition, the Catholic Church and the state's five dioceses have created a fund—the New Jersey Catholic Diocese Victim Compensation Fund—to settle outside of litigation.
Gianforcaro. 56, acknowledged having his own conflicts being so closely tied to the Catholic faith. His son Eric, 9, had his confirmation recently at St. James Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, which his family attended—and yet, Gianforcaro is litigating cases where the Church is on the other side.
And not just on the plaintiff side. In November 2012, The Delbarton School in Morris Township—a private school run by the Order of St. Benedict of New Jersey—filed a lawsuit against Gianforcaro claiming he violated a confidentiality agreement by publicly disclosing terms of the 1988 settlement of a lawsuit filed by a teenager sexually abused by a monk at the school.
The suit, filed in Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, claimed Gianforcaro "breached the agreement " made with a previous attorney when he allegedly disclosed a seven-figure settlement during a news conference outside the Morris County Courthouse in Morristown.
Gianforcaro responded to the suit, claiming at the time he did not think he did anything wrong, legally or morally. He stated the lawsuit against him was just "retaliatory nonsense" and that the school was trying to shift focus away from the victim to his lawyer.
Last December, after more than six years of litigation, Gianforcaro and DelBarton announced the matter had been resolved. No other details were disclosed.
“It’s definitely a conflict because I hear the church claiming they are praying for the victims, and I’ve seen from behind the scenes the legal schemes and lobbying that the church has done,” Gianforcaro said. “How can you pray for victims publicly, but privately, you are trying and lobbying for legislation to prevent them from having their day in court. It's accountability. They don’t want to be accountable.”
He added, “For a lot of of these victims, if they go through the fund with the Catholic Church, they may lose out on finding out information that the Church knew about their abuser. Going through the fund denies the victim the opportunity to look at priest personnel files. I have so many clients where part of their healing is wanting to know what the Church knew about their abuser. They want to know whether or not something could have been done to prevent their abuse. The majority of my clients want information.”
The Catholic Church has disputed such claims about its intentions.
Patrick R. Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that New Jersey's five Roman Catholic dioceses over the last two decades have paid close to $50 million in financial settlements to victims of child sexual abuse.
He testified on March 7 about measures the Church has implemented to protect minors from sexual abuse. He said the Roman Catholic bishops in New Jersey on March 4 sent each member of the Legislature a statement outlining the procedures it put in place to protect children and provided a copy of the statement to Senate committee members as they reviewed S-477.
“First, let me say that we sincerely regret that in decades past, some in the Church failed in their responsibility to protect children,” Brannigan testified. “I am here today to stress our sincere and demonstrated commitment toward creating safe environments in which to worship, learn, and gather in our parishes, schools, and other parish settings.”
Brannigan then asked the lawmakers to consider amending S-477 to delay implementation of the law from Dec. 1, 2019, until after the Victims Compensation Program was completed. He said the compensation program “requires a significantly lower level of proof and corroboration than required in a court of law.”
“Litigation, for many victims, is a re-traumatization with depositions and court appearances. The Dec. 1, 2019, implementation date currently in S-477 will make the Victims Compensation Program less effective than it would otherwise be,” he said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee declined to make such amendments, and passed S-477 with the Dec. 1 effective date intact.
“We have no lobbyist,” Gianforcaro said of victims and their advocates. “These victims struggle, and it's really been a grassroots effort to try and bring out the truth.”
Gianforcaro said, “I became a lawyer for one reason, and that was to help people. These kinds of cases allow me to do exactly what I have always wanted to do.There is so much nobility in law. As lawyers, we have the ability to affect change. I just feel lucky every day to be doing what I am doing.”
Roughly 75 percent to 85 percent of Gianforcaro's practice is sexual assault cases. he said. Workers compensation, personal injury, including auto cases, and municipal court and land use cases make up the rest.
All of his abuse cases are on a contingency-fee basis because plaintiffs “don’t have the means to spend money where there is no guarantee that they will ever get anything,” Gianforcaro said. “What they are trying to get back is their voice.”
The Assembly is scheduled to convene for a voting session on A-3648 and other measures at 1 p.m. Monday.