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Catholic Church, Boy Scouts hit with sex abuse suits under new NJ law extending victims' rights

Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

NEWARK, N.J. -- Dozens of new allegations of sexual abuse against priests and scoutmasters have surfaced since Sunday, as New Jersey opened a temporary, two-year window granting victims a second chance to pursue court claims that had been previously barred by time limits.

New lawsuits filed over the past two days include allegations against six priests in the Camden Diocese as well as previously undisclosed claims involving now defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Newark.

In another new filing, a now 59-year-old man accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of failing to stop his abuser, Bucks County priest Francis Trauger. When his parents turned to another cleric to counsel their son, his lawsuit alleges, that priest took him on a trip to the Jersey Shore and molested him, too.

In all, 48 lawsuits -- some with allegations dating as far back as the 1950s -- have been filed against the Boy Scouts of America and Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York since the state's "statute-of-limitations lookback window" went into effect at midnight Sunday. That number is expected to grow into the hundreds by the time the state closes the temporary window in December 2021, plaintiff's attorneys said.

"Today is a momentous day because we can finally move forward in our pursuit of justice," said Patty Fortney-Julius, a Harrisburg, Pa., woman who filed suit Monday against the Archdiocese of Newark and Diocese of Harrisburg for abuse she and her four sisters endured for years. "Today is not just about telling our story. Today is about finally having the chance to get answers."

The wave of suits was made possible by New Jersey's new law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in May and could put institutions like the church on the hook for millions of dollars in court judgments and settlements in county courthouses from Newark to the Jersey Shore.

 

Under the previous law, people had two years to file from the time they realized they had been harmed by abuse. The new law extends the statute of limitations, allowing people to sue until they turn 55. It also opened the two-year window for all sex abuse claims no matter when they occurred.

More than a dozen states have considered similar bills, spurred on by the #MeToo movement and the 2018 grand jury report outlining decades of abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania's Catholic dioceses. Efforts to pass a window law in Pennsylvania have been met with fierce opposition from Catholic leaders and the Boy Scouts, who have argued that lifting the statute-of-limitations would subject them to a flood of lawsuits with allegations too old to defend against.

Still, the volume of new litigation in the first days of the New Jersey window was not quite the frenzy critics predicted.

When New York opened a similar window in August, limited to one-year, more than 400 new cases were filed on the first day and that number has since reached more than 1,000.

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