Piecing together the details of a decades-old child sexual assault case is a daunting task. The Warren County Prosecutor’s Office is on such a trail right now, having initiated a criminal investigation spurred by allegations made against former Warren County Sheriff Edward Bullockin a civil suit.
The suit, filed by attorney Brad Russo, alleges that Bullock sexually assaulted his client, now in his thirties, in the 1980s — when he was between the ages of 8 and 11, while under the sheriff’s supervision. (The suit does not identify Bullock as a defendant. However, he was the sheriff from 1982 until his resignation in 1991 — within the time frame of the allegations.)
The existence of such claims can’t come as a shock to anyone who has followed Bullock’s criminal history. In an investigation into his behavior in the early 1990s, Bullock admitted he used his authority over boys at Warren Acres, the county’s youth detention center, to cultivate future sex partners, according to state police. Bullock told investigators he had sexual contact with eight boys he met at Warren Acres. He was never charged in connection with those incidents, according to state police, because the boys had been discharged from Warren Acres and were 16 or older, the state’s age of consent.
However, Bullock was caught in a state police sting and charged with seeking sexual favors from a trooper posing as a teenage boy. In 1992 he pleaded guilty to sex-related official misconduct, and in a plea deal with the attorney general’s office, served nine months in Hunterdon County jail. He was allowed to continue collecting a public pension of $19,000 a year. He’s now 86 and living in a shore community.
And for 20 years, that was the end of the story.
Until now. Warren County ProsecutorRichard Burke recently opened a criminal probe against Bullock, after the civil suit was filed. Among other things, the suit alleges that county employees knew of the abuse but failed to report it.
Because of a potential conflict of interest — Burke’s office could be in the position of prosecuting a case involving Bullock while a civil suit proceeds against the county — both Russo and Burke have asked the attorney general’s office to intervene.
It should. The criminal and civil cases deserve to proceed without a taint of conflict. The attorney general’s office should take over the criminal probe or assign it to a county that has no connection with Warren County and its sheriff’s staff.
More important, though, are the rights of the victim here — to seek damages if the evidence, dog-eared as it may be, shows that a county employee abused a child assigned to his care. If evidence surfacing as part of the civil case supports criminal charges, a prosecution should go forward as well.
There are other legal issues to be sorted out, including adherence to the statute of limitations. While New Jersey has no time limit on criminal prosecutions in cases alleging of child sexual abuse, the standard is different for civil suits. They must be filed within two years after a victim discovers he or she had been injured by the abuse.
That can be difficult to prove or disprove. Pennsylvania law is clearer, requiring child-abuse victims to file civil claims by the age of 30. Last year New Jersey legislators, reacting in part to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, sought to amend the law to give child-abuse victims a 30-year period after turning 18 to seek damages in civil court. That bill failed, but this type of reform should be reconsidered.