Why Jewish leaders want abusers to pay: The Torah tells us it is never too late to pursue justice

By Rabbi Hart (NY Daily News)
May 1, 2016

The famous joke goes: two Jews, three opinions. Yet last week, more than 100 Jewish leaders from across the religious and ideological divides came together, with one voice, to declare their support for statute of limitations reform for child abuse victims in New York State.

Why statute of limitations reform, and why are Jewish leaders lining up behind this bill? Because it’s our obligation as men and women of faith who purport to help people heal. And it is, I believe, our obligation as followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

After decades of denial, cover-ups and darkness, the light is finally shining on the scourge of child sexual abuse. Today, we better understand the high rate of its prevalence, the lasting and far-reaching damage caused by abusers, and the extreme difficulty survivors face in coming forward and seek justice. Tragically, New York State’s regressive laws prevent many victims from getting the justice they deserve and from stopping abusers from causing more harm.

While mental health experts have shown that it can take decades for a victim of child sexual abuse to overcome the fear, shame and trauma of abuse and come forward, our statutes allow someone to pursue criminal or civil justice only until the victim turns 23.

As a rabbi, I have met people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are only now coming to grips with what happened to them as children, and only now able to come forward. New York law fails these victims by giving a victim only five years from the time they enter adulthood to act.

New York state has been ranked among the very worst, alongside Mississippi, Alabama and Michigan, for how the courts and criminal justice system treat survivors of child sex abuse.

We take this stand not only as New Yorkers and Americans, but as Jews.

Judaism is a religion as concerned with what happens in the courthouse with what happens in the synagogue. Fairness, justice and protecting the vulnerable are hallmarks of the Torah — calls made in our sacred texts over and over again.

In addition, Jewish law does not recognize the concept of a statute of limitations: If a wrong was committed, if someone has harmed, they always have the right to seek justice.

It is also long past time that Jewish leaders came to grips with the fact that rather being a source of healing for victims of child sexual abuse, sometimes our religious institutions and leaders have been part of the problem. Too often, they have discouraged victims from going to the police. Too often, they have been enablers or even perpetrators of abuse.

Shamefully, it has been religious groups that have played the most prominent role in blocking the passage of statute of limitations reform in New York State until now. Why? Enacting this legislation puts many institutions, religious and otherwise, at financial risk for actions that protected abusers, ignored abuse claims or directly perpetrated abuse in the past.

But if the passage of statute of limitations reform means that religious institutions will have to bear the burden of increased financial risk, that is a burden we must find a way to bear. Have victims with profound emotional scars, shattered faith and more not paid a price beyond any dollar amount?

We must ask ourselves: to which bottom line are we accountable? Those of profits, of those of the prophets?

The Torah teaches: Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue. Though we cannot undo the pain that was done, often under our own auspices, faith leaders can stand with victims of child sexual abuse in their quest for justice. Faith leaders can fulfill our mandate to be relentless pursuers of justice by calling on Albany to pass the Child Victim’s Act.

Hart is an Orthodox rabbi.