Lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly advanced a bill Monday that clarifies how a new state law allowing sexual abuse victims to file civil lawsuits against those responsible will apply to public entities and public employees.

The Catholic Church says the bill puts limits on the damages that can be collected in lawsuits against public entities that aren’t applied in cases against nonprofits.

“This is a final cleanup version of what was considered that the governor signed recently,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union. “This was a consideration that the governor wanted as part of the bill, to ensure that public entities and public employees were treated the same as other entities.”

In a statement issued when he signed the bill into law last month, Murphy said he signed it based on a commitment that a bill would be swiftly passed “that will correct an error … relating to the liability of public entities.”

Murphy said the new law inadvertently fails to establish a standard of proof for cases involving claims filed against public entities.

“If unaddressed, the lack of clarity would create uncertainty and likely lead to additional litigation,” Murphy wrote. “I have received assurances that the Legislature will correct this omission by clarifying that public entities should be held to the same standard of liability that is applied to religious and nonprofit organizations.  Applying a different standard would be unjustified.”

Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, however, said the bill doesn’t apply the same standards because it doesn’t allow damages to be collected in lawsuits against public entities the same way it will for lawsuits against nonprofits, such as churches.

“Whenever legislators speak on this bill, they say they are treating victims in public agencies the same as victims in nonpublic. That’s a misstatement. That is not true. It’s not accurate,” Brannigan said.

Brannigan said the differences are that public entities would not be subject to punitive damages and the damages would need to be permanent.

“Not treating victims equally as to monetary damages is unfair and unjust,” he said.

Brannigan said the law should either make public employees and entities liable for damages, or give nonprofits the same treatment now being proposed for public entities. He said a third option would be to put caps on damages that would apply to both public and nonprofit entities.

“There’s a question we must ask, and that is: Why should victims abused in a public entity be second-class citizens as to damages?” Brannigan said.

Brannigan said the reason is that “this is an extraordinarily expensive bill for the state” for decades of cases involving agencies such as the Division of Youth and Family Services and for public school districts.

“Public entities are frightened by this, and so they will come and tell you, ‘We can’t do this to the taxpayers,’” he said. “And I ask: Well, why are you doing it to the same individuals who happen to be members of the church or some other nonpublic organization?”

Representatives of the associations for counties, municipalities and school districts submitted statements in favor of the bill Monday but did not testify publicly.

The bill, S3739/A5392, was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee and Assembly Budget Committee.

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