On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.
Approved For Publication February 29, 1996
Before Judges King, Landau and Kleiner. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.j.a.d. Kleiner, J.A.D., Dissenting.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: King
The opinion of the court was delivered by
These cases involve two claims for compensatory and punitive damages for sexual molestation brought pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1 against a minister, his local church and its hierarchy. The defendants want the case to proceed against them secretly and anonymously, at least to the stage of a ruling on the validity of their statute-of-limitation defense. The plaintiffs want full public disclosure. The Law Division Judge ruled against anonymity of the parties or events to any extent. We granted leave to appeal to examine his ruling and now affirm. R. 2:2-3(b).
Plaintiffs H.W.H. and T.S.R. filed separate civil complaints on about February 7, 1995. They alleged that they were "sexually molested and battered," in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1, by defendant J.C., their former minister. The plaintiffs used the full names of all parties. Both plaintiffs also named as defendants the churches which employed and supervised J.C. as well as supervising members or officials of those churches and the church hierarchy. T.S.R. and H.W.H. sought to hold the defendants "jointly and severally liable for compensatory damages, punitive damages, interest, costs of suit, attorney fees and such other relief as the Court or jury may deem proper, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1," a relatively new statute, L. 1992, c. 109, providing a cause of action for sexual abuse.
On February 14, 1995 defendant J.C. filed motions for emergency relief, requesting an order: (1) requiring that the complaints be dismissed or immediately sealed, (2) prohibiting plaintiffs from filing any further pleadings or documents containing names, addresses, or identities, and (3) imposing sanctions upon plaintiffs' counsel. Judge Nicola entered orders dated April 17 sealing the filed documents, dismissing the complaints, and allowing plaintiffs to refile their complaints using initials or fictitious names. The order also provided that all depositions, hearings, and court proceedings be conducted in closed sessions, not open to the public.
On April 28 plaintiffs filed motions for reconsideration. Judge Nicola then recused himself for undisclosed reasons and Judge Hamlin heard the motions for reconsideration, reasoning that "given the weight of the issue, the short notice return date. . ., and the seriousness of the issue,  equity requires that the Court reconsider the issue." See Johnson v. Cyklop Strapping Corp., 220 N.J. Super. 250, 263, 531 A.2d 1078 (App. Div. 1987). In orders dated July 7, 1995, Judge Hamlin granted plaintiffs' motions for reconsideration and rescinded the orders entered by Judge Nicola. Judge Hamlin's orders also provided for an automatic stay pending J.C.'s motion for leave to appeal and this court's resolution of that motion. We granted leave to appeal and consolidated the cases on August 21, 1995.
Plaintiffs allege that J.C. repeatedly sexually molested T.S.R. and H.W.H. from 1979 through 1982. When these incidents occurred, plaintiffs were between ages eleven and thirteen. Both plaintiffs are now in their late twenties. J.C. was the minister of the church attended by plaintiffs' families, and he allegedly used their trust in him and the authority of his position to perpetrate these assaults and to insure the boys' silence. Plaintiffs also allege that the defendant church officials conducted an investigation and decided to proceed with formal church charges against J.C. but that he chose to leave the ministry and thus to forego a formal inquiry. In contrast, J.C. contends that he was forced from his ministry by plaintiffs' baseless accusations.
Though defendants have not yet filed answers to the complaints, J.C. contends through counsel that he "denies the substance of any and all allegations of sexual misconduct." He also considers the claims "frivolous" since he believes them time-barred, as this is not a repressed-memory case. J.C. stresses that both T.S.R. and H.W.H. would have been well aware of any offensive conduct from the outset, had it occurred.
The record also discloses that the church has circulated at least three letters among its congregants during August of 1994 relating to the allegations made by T.S.R. and H.W.H. The letters do not name T.S.R. and H.W.H. but they do name J.C. Apparently, the letters were widely circulated within the congregation, although each contains a caution asking members to keep the matter within the "church family."
Judge Nicola originally granted the protective orders sought by the defense, holding that N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1 requires that real names not be used for any parties when complaints are brought under the statute. We disagree and find that the statute grants only the plaintiff-victim the option of refusing to disclose identifying information.
N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1(f) L.1992, c. 109, § 1. provides:
(1) The name, address, and identity of a victim or a defendant shall not appear on the complaint or any other public record as defined in P.L.1963, c, 73 (C. 47:1A-1 et seq.). In their place initials or a fictitious name shall appear.
(2) Any report, statement, photograph, court document, complaint or any other public record which states the name, address and identity of a victim shall be confidential and unavailable to the public.
(3) The information described in this subsection shall remain confidential and unavailable to the public unless the victim consents to the disclosure or if the court, after a hearing, determines that good cause exists for the disclosure. The hearing shall be held after notice has been made to the victim and to the defendant and the defendant's counsel.
(4) Nothing contained herein shall prohibit the court from imposing further restrictions with regard to the disclosure of the name, address, and identity of the victim when it deems it necessary to prevent trauma or stigma to the victim. [emphasis supplied.]
When resolving questions of statutory construction, our function is to implement the intent of the legislature. See, e.g., State v. Sutton, 132 N.J. 471, 479, 625 A.2d 1132 (1993); State v. Maguire, 84 N.J. 508, 514, 423 A.2d 294 (1980). If the plain language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, we need not look beyond the text to determine legislative intent. State v. Butler, 89 N.J. 220, 226, 445 A.2d 399 (1982). With regard to N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1(f), the clear language of section f(3) provides for the disclosure of parties' identities in two circumstances -- if the victim consents or if a Judge decides that good cause exists.
Arguably, however, an ambiguity arises when considering section f(3) in tandem with section f(1), which simply states that initials or fictitious names "shall" be used for all parties. When a statute includes provisions which appear inconsistent, we must examine the history and purpose of the act in order to ascertain the underlying or true legislative intent. Sutton, supra, 132 N.J. at 479. We also must seek an interpretation that will "make the most consistent whole of the statute." State v. A.N.J., 98 N.J. 421, 424, 487 A.2d 324 (1985).
The legislative history of the statute does not directly address this seeming conflict. Judge Hamlin concluded that the "overriding concern" of the statute was to protect the victim. Though he expressed concern that innocent people might be wrongly accused of sexual misconduct, he concluded:
It seems to me relatively clear. . . that the right to secrecy is one that is at the option of the victim, of the alleged victim. . . .
I am satisfied that given the overall nature of the language of the statute and the use of the terms "victim" and "shall," that a clear reading, even where there is some ambiguity, must be resolved in favor of the remedial purpose, to protect the victims of sexual misconduct.
This is a reasonable Conclusion. Sections f(1) and f(2) set out the general rule of non-disclosure. Section f(3) seems clearly intended to provide exceptions to that general rule; the information may be made public if the victim consents or if a Judge determines, after a hearing, that good cause exists. Also worth noting -- section f(4) allows for "further restrictions" on disclosure if "necessary to prevent trauma or stigma to the victim." Any possible trauma or stigma to the defendant is conspicuously absent as a factor for consideration. Finally, even the fact that section f(1) provides initially and generally for the anonymity of a defendant may well reflect concern for and an intention to protect the identity of the victim only. In many cases of sexual abuse of children, the perpetrator is a parent or close relative; in such a case, publicly revealing the defendant's identity would be tantamount to revealing the victim's identity.
The entire tenor of this 1992 statute is the protection of victim's rights. See Note, "Damages, Duress and the Discovery Rules: The Statutory Right of Recovery for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse," 17 Seton Hall L. J. 505, 507 (1993). There is no suggestion in the act or any of its extant history of any intent to shield alleged sexual molesters with anonymity if the victim opts to proceed publicly.
We turn to the question of whether the Judge abused his discretion in refusing the defendants' request to allow the litigation to proceed anonymously. R. 1:4-1(a)(1) provides that, generally, every paper filed in an action should identify all of the parties. Further, R. 1:2-1 provides that all proceedings "shall be conducted in open court unless otherwise provided by rule or statute," and prohibits the sealing of court records except "for good cause shown." Courts have inherent "equitable powers . . . over their own process, to prevent abuses, oppression, and inJustices." Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart 467 U.S. 20, 35, 104 S. Ct. 2199, 2209, 81 L. Ed. 2d 17 (1984). Our Supreme Court recently explained, on August 2, 1995, after this case before us was decided in the Law Division:
There is a presumption of public access to documents and materials filed with a court in connection with civil litigation. That right exists under the common law as to the litigants and the public. . . But the right of access is not absolute. Under both the common law and the First Amendment, a court may craft a protective order. "The strong common law presumption of access must be balanced against the factors militating against access. The burden is on the person who seeks to overcome the presumption of access to show that the interest in secrecy outweighs the presumption."
As we have stated, "Under case law and the Rules of Court, a Judge has some discretion to relax R. 1:2-1 and enter an order limiting or even prohibiting access to certain judicial proceedings and records." Zukerman v. Piper Pools, 256 N.J. Super. 622, 627, 607 A.2d 1027 (App. Div. 1992).
Defendant J.C. urges that, even if anonymity is not required by statute, he has shown sufficient good cause to require that his anonymity be protected for equitable reasons. Although Judge Hamlin recognized that he could, for equitable reasons, possibly allow defendant J.C. to litigate anonymously, he declined. He said that the equitable power to restrict public access "should be exercised discretely and with great reservation." He pointed out that other Middlesex County cases involving church officials accused of sexual abuse were "uniformly open in nature." He also pointed to the letters circulated by the church and observed that "the equitable argument loses much of its ...