Judge Throws out Lawsuits against Boychoir School

By Diana Jean Schemo
The News Sun [Illinois]
Downloaded January 10, 2003

New Jersey judge has dismissed two lawsuits against the American Boychoir School, where dozens of former students say they were molested as children by the choir director and other employees. The judge ruled that as a nonprofit institution, the school could not be sued for acts that injured children, "no matter how flagrant that conduct may be."

In a decision issued on Monday, Judge Jack Sabatino of New Jersey Superior Court ruled that New Jersey's Charitable Immunity Act prevented victims from suing the Princeton-based boarding school, although they could sue individual employees who abused them or did not try to stop abuse.

Noting that lawmakers and the courts had interpreted the law as granting nonprofit groups broad protections, Judge Sabatino wrote, "This court is constrained to hold that the act insulates charitable organizations from liability for any degree of tortious conduct, no matter how flagrant that conduct may be." He ruled that "contentions that employees and agents of the American Boychoir School acted willfully, wantonly, recklessly, indifferently — even criminally — do not eviscerate the school's legal protection."

The decision affects two suits against the Boychoir School by men who accused Donald Hanson, who ran the school's choir from 1970 to 1982, of molesting them as children.

In one suit, John W. Hardwicke Jr., 45, a White Hall, Md., resident who attended the Boychoir School from 1969 to 1971, said he was molested by Mr. Hanson and three other employees, from a headmaster to a cook. In the other suit, Douglas Palmatier, who started at the Boychoir School at the age of 9 in 1971, said he was raped by Mr. Hanson over the next eight years.

Beyond those two suits, however, Keith Smith, the lawyer for Mr. Hardwicke, said more than a dozen former students had contacted him in recent months and were watching the Hardwicke case to decide whether they would sue as well. In addition, another dozen alumni who spoke to The New York Times last year said Mr. Hanson and other employees at the Boychoir School molested them in the 1970's and 1980's.

Mr. Hardwicke said he was "absolutely stunned" by the judge's decision and planned to appeal. "I was really taught, and truly believed, that the courts were interested in justice, that the legal system was interested in protecting the rights of victims," Mr. Hardwicke said.

His wife, Terri, who was also a plaintiff in the suit, said: "It's unbelievable that there were ever laws passed that would so abandon the victim. I just don't know how these people sleep rendering these decisions. It just leaves us so devastated."

Jay Greenblatt, the lawyer for the Boychoir School, said that while the decision protected the school, Mr. Hardwicke could still press his suit against Mr. Hanson and other school employees. "I think it's terrible that Hanson or anyone else who might have inappropriately molested this boy get away with anything," Mr. Greenblatt said.

Mr. Hanson, who left the school in 1982 after admitting molesting students, was served with the Hardwicke suit at his mother's house in Canada. He has not responded to it, and further efforts to locate him have been unsuccessful, Mr. Smith said.

Since April, a bill to end charities' immunity from prosecution for sexual abuse by employees has remained in the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee. Michelle Jaker, a spokeswoman for State Senator Joseph Vitale, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said the Catholic Conference has lobbied heavily against efforts to weaken the law.

In a telephone interview, Senator William L. Gormley, the Judiciary Committee co-chairman, said flatly, "The bill isn't going to be moving." Mr. Gormley said he opposed the bill because it would open the gates to lawsuits for acts that were decades old. "I don't see the support for, in effect, retroactively affecting the status quo in New Jersey," Mr. Gormley said.

A dispirited Ms. Hardwicke said that New Jersey institutions like the Boychoir School "ought to come with warnings: `We can starve them, beat them, torture them, leave them naked out in the rain, and you can't do anything about it. You'll have no legal recourse.' "


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