NEWARK, N.J. -- On its face, it seemed a simple computer error, albeit an incongruously beatific one.
A recent search of Middlesex County's computerized land records showed that the Virgin Mary owned about 365 parcels in the county that on closer examination actually belonged to such earthbound entities as Public Service Electric and Gas and the Hungarian Boy Scout Association.
But the appearance of Mary's name is just part of the county's larger problem in carrying out its move from the ancient realm of dusty, paper-filled halls of records to the new era of computer-stored images of documents. It has been a journey fraught with frustration, errors and a lawsuit by title searchers who view the new system as anything but an improvement.
And although all parties agree that no land transactions have been seriously affected by the problems, state regulators who have been monitoring the county's transition say they cannot certify the new system until the bugs are ironed out.
A search of the new computerized records by a title searcher seeking someone with a last name beginning with the letters "Vir" turned up an index of properties and transactions that listed "Virgin Mary" as a seller or buyer.
Walter A. DeAngelo, Middlesex County administrator, said the error resulted from the mistaken installation of a test file used by programmers who had been transferring land records from an older mainframe that could not handle the necessary imaging to a newer system.
The errant test file was designed, for indexing purposes, to truncate long names in transactions, and did just that when it came upon "The New Brunswick Greek Catholic Church of the St. Virgin Mary." But it went on to mistakenly overlay the shortened name on hundreds of other indexed transactions.
Noting that the computer records were intact and only the index was in error, DeAngelo said that the problem would be fixed within a week or 10 days. In the meantime, title searchers will have to use the old paper records.
The mistake came as no surprise to Ann Sardone, spokeswoman for the Middlesex County Title Searchers Guild, whose group sued the county in October over the new system, which they say has made their lives miserable.
"We're not Luddites, and we understand that computers are here to stay," Sardone said. "But this system has been a problem from the start with inputting errors and an indexing system that is very unforgiving. We just laughed hysterically when we saw the Virgin Mary entries."