NJ Supreme Court Gives Go Ahead to Boychoir Suit

Linda Arntzenius

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled last Tuesday, August 8, that a law intended to guard charitable institutions from being bankrupted by employee negligence cannot protect the American Boychoir School in Princeton Township from a sexual abuse lawsuit.

In the suit, a former student at the school, John W. Hardwicke Jr., said that he was molested by the choirmaster, Donald Hanson, and by three other members of the school staff.

The Court ruled that under the Child Sexual Abuse Act (CSAA), the school qualifies as a "person" standing in loco parentis.

It found that the Charitable Immunity Act immunizes charities for negligence only; it does not bar statutory or common-law claims that are based on willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct. "An employer can be held vicariously liable for the acts of its employees for child abuse claims brought under the common law." The ruling means that Mr. Hardwicke can now proceed with litigation against the private school.

Mr. Hardwicke's suit claims that the American Boychoir School hired Mr. Hanson even though his pedophilic tendencies were known and that it condoned, and even fostered, the abusive behavior.

Donald Hanson was hired as Music Director in 1970. One of the school's principal administrators and in residence there, he left in 1982 and now resides in Canada.

According to a case syllabus prepared by the Office of the Clerk of the Court, parents of students received a letter in March 1982 reporting that Mr. Hanson had been given a "medical leave of absence and that he had resigned "for personal health reasons." Mr. Hardwicke, who lives in Maryland, was twelve years old when he arrived as a boarding student in the fall of 1969. He was a student there until April 1971 and claims that the sexual abuse occurred almost daily between October 1970 and April 1971.

He first informed the school of the abuse in 1999. Between 1982 and 1999, other students had also notified the administration that they had been sexually abused by Mr. Hanson.

The case syllabus reports that the school did not notify students of the abuse until 2000, when it sent a letter explaining that a senior staff member had been dismissed after reports of inappropriate sexual contact.

In 2001, Mr. Hardwicke sued Mr. Hanson and the American Boychoir School seeking damages on several counts. He claimed that by not notifying students of the abuse, the trauma of his abuse was prolonged. His suit claimed that he suffered severe emotional harm and physical pain as a result.

The case will now return to the lower courts to determine whether Mr. Hardwicke's allegations fall within the statute of limitations. Limiting Immunity Last week's decision limits the scope of the Charitable Immunity Act, which gives immunity from liability to nonprofit groups set up exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes, in cases where damage results from an employee's negligence.

The decision means that such non-profit organizations would not be shielded from liability in cases involving sexual abuse.

"The Charitable Immunity Act was never intended to immunize charitable organizations from gross negligence and misconduct," said Mr. Hardwicke's lawyer, Keith Smith.

In a prepared statement, Donald B. Edwards, president of the American Boychoir School, said that the school "has been very open about the story of Donald Hanson's sexual abuse of students in the 1970s and his subversion of the mission of this institution." Mr. Edwards said, "Hanson's actions have made victims not only of the boys he abused but also of the school he betrayed." About the ruling, Mr. Edwards said: "It will be a difficult and painful experience for a trial court to determine 35 years after the fact the truth of what happened to Mr. Hardwicke and the degree of the school's liability. We hope it will be possible to resolve the case in a manner that allows Mr. Hardwicke to get on with his life and allows the school to advance its educational mission of building lives of achievement and character through the power of music." His statement went on to say: "The American Boychoir School is a safe and healthy place where employees are carefully screened and trained on child protection issues and where students are taught that they can, and must, talk to trusted adults — their parents, teachers, houseparents, music directors — about any inappropriate behavior. We are deeply sorry that students were abused by Donald Hanson in the 1970s and that their abuse was not discovered until many years later." Jay Greenblatt, a lawyer representing the Boychoir School said he was "troubled" by the decision because of its implications for liability for charitable organizations. "I think that is a slippery slope," he said.

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