The Markey Bill And Beyond: If The Rabbis Really Cared...

by Asher Lipner (The Jewish Week)
May 27, 2009

For years I was a proud, card-carrying member of Agudath Israel of America, a leading haredi communal organization; sadly, I have allowed my membership to lapse. But I, like many others, do not feel that I left the Agudah. Rather the Agudah has left us.

The Agudah has come out in opposition to the Child Victims Act, known as the "Markey Bill" in the New York State Legislature (its lead sponsor is Queens Assemblywoman Marge Markey). The bill would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse recourse toward obtaining justice against their abusers by providing a one-year "window" in which to file a civil lawsuit at any age, and would extend the statute of limitations for pressing criminal charges from age 23 to 28.

Many survivors of child abuse have been waiting for years in shame, pain and agony, hoping that one day our religious leaders would hear their cries and address their plight. Survivors were just beginning to feel empowered and accepted after recent media attention and political and communal statements calling attention to their suffering.

Courageously, some survivors were able to speak out, and there were those who traveled to Albany last month to lobby for passage of the Markey bill. Orthodox Jews stood together with Catholics and Protestants, blacks and whites, to support survivors of child abuse and to ensure protection for children in the future.

But we were deeply disappointed to learn, on the bus ride home, that the Agudah and Torah Umesorah, the National Association of Hebrew Day Schools, whom parents expect to promote child welfare and school safety, had come out against the bill.

One survivor of abuse from 29 years ago, a friend of mine, wondered aloud: "Does it take a situation where the children or grandchildren of the religious leadership are molested before they will finally start doing the right thing?"

The Agudah is concerned with yeshivas and other institutions becoming financially insolvent due to lawsuits, should Markey pass. But the only lawsuits that could possibly win are those against yeshivas that knowingly harbored molesters, not the vast majority of innocent institutions. Are we to believe that yeshivas that would enable the abuse of innocent Jewish children are, in the words of the Agudah and Torah Umersorah, the "lifeblood of our community?"

On the one hand, the Markey bill is not necessarily an absolute litmus test of whether the rabbis care or not about victims of sexual abuse. But the fact is that Agudah's denunciation of the Child Victims Act marks the first time that the current gedolim (Torah sages) have acknowledged the problem of sexual abuse — and then only to focus on the institutions they are afraid will be financially hurt by it. As I have heard repeatedly from those who have suffered, this leads survivors of abuse to feel that the rabbis care more about the financial safety of their institutions than the physical, emotional and spiritual safety of the children.

Survivors of abuse wonder why the rabbis remained silent for so many years about this issue. Yated Neeman, the primary haredi newspaper, reported recently that the leading rabbis have been meeting to discuss the problem for at least five years. So why is it only now that they publicly admit that molestation exists in their community? And where is the apology to the victims for not protecting them all this time, for not believing them and for silencing their voices?

Why have these rabbinic leaders not openly endorsed the position paper of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children (www.jewishadvocates.org), which calls for mandated reporting of suspicion of abuse by rabbis and teachers in yeshivas; mandated fingerprinting and background checks of all employees in yeshivas; mandated safety plans with full transparency and written instructions to parents; and mandated firing and punishment of employees for any sexual or physical abuse?

These actions should have begun already — voluntarily — even before legislation is enacted. It is a chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) that our yeshivas would need the government to legislate and enforce the fundamentals of our Torah. Enforcement of these values, which conform to halacha, would be easy enough for our leaders. Any school that does not provide for the safety of our children should be deemed as outside of Orthodoxy, as would be a school that sponsored a Tisha b'Av dance party or Yom Kippur banquet.

Surely if a school was found to be distributing treif lollipops it would soon be forced to shut its doors.

Why have the gedolim not yet signed a proclamation stating that both victims and witnesses of abuse must go to the police, as some rabbinic authorities have stated? Why have they fostered the misperception that it is forbidden to do so because of mesirah (the prohibition of reporting Jews to non-Jewish authorities)? Why do they not also clarify to the uninformed that sexual abuse is a sin and a crime whether there is sexual penetration or not — that it includes such mistreatment as fondling, coercing a child to touch an adult sexually, exhibitionism, voyeurism and even inappropriate sexual speech to a child?

If the rabbinic leaders are too afraid of damaging their own institutions to support the Markey bill, let them implement the above suggestions. That surely would go a long way toward reaching out to survivors and promoting healing and teshuva in our community.

Asher Lipner is vice president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children and works as a therapist with survivors of abuse and their families.