By Rebecca Dube (Forward.com)
April 22, 2009
Two influential Orthodox organizations, Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah – The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, have come out against a New York State bill that would create a one-year window in which child sex abuse victims could sue their molesters, no matter how long ago the abuse happened.
The bill has been a hot topic this year both in the state legislature, where its fate is uncertain, and in Orthodox Jewish communities, which have been rocked in recent years by allegations of sexual abuse against rabbis and yeshiva teachers.
In addition to creating the one-year window for lawsuits, the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Marge Markey, D-Queens, would also extend the statute of limitations by five years for child sexual abuse. The rationale, Markey says, is that it often takes decades for victims of childhood sexual abuse to process what was done to them and to come forward – especially if they were abused at the hands of a trusted authority figure, such as a priest or a rabbi. Similar legislation in California led to the identification of hundreds of previously unknown sexual predators.
Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah joined the Catholic Church in opposing the legislation. In their statement, the Jewish groups said that they understand the trauma of abuse, but they fear that lawsuits during the one-year period "could literally destroy schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community."
"...It is important to recognize that Jewish schools are independent entities supported wholly by parental tuition and fundraising," the statement continues. "Therefore, the burden of litigation expense or legal liability for ancient claims would fall squarely on an entirely innocent group — the current parent body."
Meanwhile, the National Organization for Women and a prominent organization of African-American clergy came out in favor of the bill, joining sexual abuse survivors at a rally in Albany on April 21.
"Abuse against children is violence," Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the 34,000-member National Black Church Initiative, at an Albany news conference. "I don't represent a god who condones violence. It is a shame we have to fight against the [Catholic] church in this."
Jewish organizations that have previously voiced their support for Markey's bill include the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America and the Union for Traditional Judaism. The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a Brooklyn group dominated by the Satmar Chasidic sect, opposes it and favors an alternative bill that would extend the statute of limitations, but would not include the one-year window for litigation.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, D-Brooklyn, distributed a letter on April 22 asking Agudath Israel to reconsider, and suggesting possible compromises to make the one-year window more amenable, such as a cap on abuse victims' financial awards or limits on plaintiffs' attorneys contingency fees.
"Achieving justice for the victims need not come about as a result of the financial demise of our greatest institutions," Hikind wrote. "But neither can we forsake those who have already sacrificed far too much."