Marcus Rayner | Gloucester County Times

The horror stories that nearly a dozen boys experienced at the hands of Jerry Sandusky during his years as an assistant coach at Penn State are difficult to hear.

What the administration knew, when they knew it, how they chose to handle or ignore it, and the price these young men and their families will continue to pay for the rest of their lives remind us all of our responsibilities to the children in our communities.

Child sexual predators exist everywhere. They harm children from all demographics and shatter families from all socio-economic statuses. It often takes years for victims to come forward and bring their accusers to justice. Most reasonable people understand this reality. And that is why a criminal statute of limitations does not exist in New Jersey, and is not in question.

Civil limitations, however, do exist. These are time limits on cases brought by accusers seeking monetary damages from sex abusers or their employers for the abuses they have suffered. The statute of limitations on these civil trials is currently two years from the time a person realizes that they have been injured by sexual abuse, not from the act itself. And while our courts typically err on the side of the victim, advocates have maintained that two years is not long enough.
Lengthening the current statute of limitations may indeed be fairer to victims as they sort through their experiences into early adulthood. But a legal measure recently approved by two committees in the Legislature – while well-intentioned – takes a step beyond what is rational under the American judicial system.

This measure would completely eliminate the civil statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse, as well as revive claims from the past. And while it seems compassionate in theory, it can wreak havoc for any business, school or non-profit that works with children.

Statutes of limitations exist for a reason. Time destroys evidence and memories. And these suits are brought not just against the perpetrators, but against their former employers.

Consider, for instance, a decades-old non-profit organization that serves children. Any adult can allege sexual abuse from decades ago. Legitimate or not, the program will have little recourse: its founders may be deceased; the alleged perpetrator may be deceased; anyone who may have had any nexus to the plaintiff is long gone. It’s left to the present-day staff to put the pieces together as best they can, draining resources from the populations they serve as they hire attorneys and re-prioritize.

And, unlike the innocent-until-proven-guilty burden of proof that would be needed in a criminal trial, a plaintiff in a civil trial would merely need to hold out for the organization’s white flag of surrender.

In addition to removing any timeline for one to bring an accuser to civil court, this proposal vastly expands who may be found liable. Consider the same decades-old non-profit organization: Volunteer members of its board of directors may be held personally and financially liable for alleged crimes that they didn’t know about.

Should this law enter the books in New Jersey, it will force unpaid, volunteer board members to think twice before donating their time and expertise to even the most worthwhile of organizations.
Child sexual abuse victims experience society at its worst. They shouldn’t have to carry the financial burdens of therapy as they move forward; it is the responsibility of the perpetrator and those who have failed the child.

But the legislation being considered, A-2405/S-1651, overcorrects the brief window of opportunity by swinging too far in the opposite direction. New Jersey’s honest charities and volunteers will be left exposed to a plethora of indefinite, unintended consequences and opportunities for the dishonest to take advantage of the law’s newly-expanded liabilities. And it’s an expense all of us will bear.

Marcus Rayner is executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, based in Trenton.