Sex Abuse Lawsuits in NJ Face Looser Time Constraints
By Lynn Fugaro, Staff Writer
New Jersey’s Atlantic County Judge Christine Smith has ruled in the case against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia being liable for alleged child molestation by one of its former priests in the 1970’s against a plaintiff known only as John Doe. Attorneys for de-frocked priest, Craig Brugger, wanted the case to be heard in Pennsylvania not New Jersey because the New Jersey court system is a better venue for plaintiffs in sex abuse cases because the state Legislature, with support of Governor Phil Murphy, is close to enacting a law that would allow people sexually abused as children until age 55 to file lawsuits, which will be explained in more detail below. Brugger, was stripped of his clerical power in 2002 after abuse allegations against him came to light, and in 2010 Brugger died.
Years of Abuse in Several Locations
In the John Doe lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the plaintiff alleged he was sexually assaulted several times by Brugger between 1972 and 1976 when he attended St. Anne’s Parish in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; Doe said the abuse ended when he was 12 years old. The lawsuit alleges that the assaults occurred in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where the plaintiff lived; at Doe’s parents’ beach house in Atlantic County; and other New Jersey locations, including a rectory and a hotel. After Doe had returned to St. Anne’s as an adult for a wedding in 2014, he started experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, and thoughts of abuse, which all lead him to seek therapy.
In response to the lawsuit, the Archdiocese argued that New Jersey was not the appropriate venue because the archdiocese did not have “minimal contacts” with the state, as required by law. The attorneys for the Archdiocese argued that the claim that it was negligent in its supervision of its priest, Brugger, should be heard in a Pennsylvania court, not a New Jersey Court.
In response to the Judge Smith’s decision, David Inscho, an attorney at Kline & Specter who represents Doe in this case, said, “This ruling is significant not just because it provides a forum for this client to hold the archdiocese accountable, but also for potentially many other victims who were transported to New Jersey by abusive priests,” Inscho added, “Many priests used the opportunity to seclude victims by taking them on trips, frequently to the Jersey Shore.”
Bill S-477 extends the current statute of limitations from two years to seven years for adult victims of sexual assault and expands the categories of defendants liable in such actions; the bill passed the full Senate in mid March by a 32-1 vote.
The measure also creates a window so child victims from the past are not prevented from filing suit against their abusers many years later as adults. In an incident of sexual assault that occurred prior to the victim’s eighteenth birthday, that person would be able to file a claim any time up until turning 55 years of age. The bill would also give victims who missed their chance to sue due to the two-year statute of limitations another two-year window in which to file civil charges — from Dec. 1 through Nov. 30, 2021.
After languishing in the legislature for years, S-477 picked up support following a disturbing grand jury report in Pennsylvania that for the church had covered up child sex abuse by over 300 priests during a 70-year period. In mid-February 2019, New Jersey's Roman Catholic dioceses released the names of 188 priests and deacons who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children the last several decades.