Justices Aid Child-Molestation Victims

By Robert Schwaneberg
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
August 9, 2006

In a sweeping ruling that expands the ability of victims of childhood molestation to sue institutions that allowed it, the New Jersey Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for a trial against Princeton's prestigious American Boychoir School.

The 5-1 ruling allows John Hardwicke of White Hall, Md., to proceed with his lawsuit claiming he was repeatedly abused by the school's choirmaster when he was an eighth-grade boarding student from 1970 to 1971.

Settling an unresolved question of law, the justices ruled that schools and other employers can be held responsible for child molestation committed by their employees. They left it for a jury to decide after a trial whether the choir school is liable for the abuse Hardwicke said he endured on a daily basis from former choirmaster Donald Hanson.

Hardwicke, now 49, said he was "thrilled" with the ruling, and advo cates for other victims of childhood sexual abuse said it bolsters their chances of obtaining justice.

"It's like a light shining out from the Supreme Court in Trenton across the whole state of New Jersey saying kids who were sexually abused have a right to bring an action against the institutions that allowed it to happen," said Hardwicke. He has been waiting since January 2001 for his day in court.

A trial judge dismissed Hardwicke's lawsuit, saying it was barred by an ironclad immunity protecting schools and other charitable institutions. That obstacle was removed in January when then-Gov. Richard Codey signed a bill retroactively abolishing charitable immunity for institutions that carelessly hired child molesters.

But that legislation kept the time limits for filing such lawsuits, raising a question of whether Hardwicke had waited too long.

Writing for a five-member majority, Chief Justice Deborah Poritz ruled that Hardwicke gets the benefit of a 1992 law that relaxed the time limits for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue.

The court sent the case to a trial judge for a hearing on whether Hardwicke sued within two years of realizing how Hanson's abuse had harmed him, as the 1992 law re quires.

"Naturally, we are pleased with the result," said Keith Smith, one of Hardwicke's New Jersey lawyers. "We look forward to our day in court."


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