The New York Jewish Community Must Help Child Sex Abuse Victims

In New York, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the Catholic Church both oppose a bill to lift the statute of limitations on abuse claims. With some flexibility, there could be a solution we can all get behind to protect our kids.

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From the video of the Hasidic principal allegedly abusing a child.
From the video of the Hasidic principal allegedly abusing a child.Credit: YouTube

Since arriving in Israel 20 years ago, I have watched my home state of New York in shock and disgust as allegations have been brought against certain yeshivas, day schools and synagogues there that they shelter and protect employees, often rabbis, who sexually abused children, at the expense of the victims who were entrusted to their care.

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 to come forward, New York’s current law allows people abused in their childhood to pursue criminal or civil justice only until the age of 23, under a statute of limitations.  

New York ranks among the very worst in the United States, alongside Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi, for how the courts and criminal justice system treat survivors of child sexual abuse.

There is no statute of limitations in halakha (Jewish law). In Judaism, an eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24) is understood by the rabbis as providing monetary damages, not exacting revenge. Culpable Jewish organizations must be held accountable, along with the perpetrators, in order to send a clear message that there is zero tolerance in our community for sexual abuse. Effective accountability requires a steep price to be paid for these heinous crimes.

But what at first glance seems to be a simple matter of determining guilt, assigning punishment and assessing damages is complicated by the decades it may take a child to be ready to confront the abuse – during which the culpable institution may replace its administration and take action to create a safe environment for other children. Would it be fair for such an institution to now face financial ruin if held accountable for those past indiscretions it has worked so hard to eliminate?

Last week, I along with over 160 rabbis and Jewish leaders, signed an online petition supporting the long overdue passage of the Child Victims Act. There are two key parts to this bill: the first would lift the statute of limitations for future victims, so that there is no time limit on when they can bring forth charges against perpetrators and the institutions that allow the abuse to take place. The second is to provide one year to victims of past offenses to take legal action against their perpetrators and institutions.

First introduced by state Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Queens) a decade ago, the Act has failed to pass in four previous attempts, mainly due to the opposition of Agudath Israel of America and the Catholic Church.

This week, nine Jewish organizations traveled to Albany for a two-day lobbying effort to convince legislators that the position held by Agudath Israel does not represent the broader Jewish community.

Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah stated in a 2009 joint statement that they are not opposed to extending the statute of limitations against future perpetrators, but are worried about the damage relaxing the statute of limitations on past victims will have on the schools and religious institutions that have already begun taking steps to correct previously inadequate organizational attitudes toward perpetrators.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s director of public affairs, told me in an email that his organization is concerned that retroactively repealing the statute of limitations might impose a crippling financial burden on such institutions. 

“Were a yeshiva to be successfully sued for a large sum, even if the staff had changed entirely since the time of the alleged crime, it could easily destroy the institution, even though it is currently being run at the highest standards," he wrote.

I sympathize with the economic plight of Jewish institutions struggling for survival, and while, on principle, I reject Shafran's argument as a justifiable reason to prevent justice from being served, I can accept that it is a fair argument for cases in the past, providing, as he suggests, the institutions have already recognized the transgressions and have since taken positive preventative steps to provide a safe environment for children – and only in cases where the administrations that enabled and covered up child abuse are no longer around to be held responsible.

Since the section of the Act about the one-year period in which victims of past abuse can take action seems to be the sticking point for getting the bill passed, it may be better to remove it entirely. Far from ideal, it could be seen as a fair compromise; one that ensures justice for future victims and protects the viability of institutions that have transgressed in the past but have made genuine and effective efforts to clean up their act, to prevent such crimes in the future. 

There is wisdom here to be gleaned from teshuvah, our Divinely given opportunity for return and forgiveness. Teshuvah requires acknowledgment of guilt, public admission, putting in place a program that will change the negative outcome, being tested, and continually passing the test.

If a revised version of the New York bill would require culpable institutions to be subjected to and bear the cost of an independent evaluation to determine if there has been real teshuvah and if so, continue to be perpetually monitored, with failure resulting in renewed prosecution, we might achieve unity in our Jewish community for the passage of just, if imperfect, legislation. In this, there could be some measure of closure and comfort for victims, knowing that other children would more likely be protected from the abuse they suffered.

I do not see this as an ideal solution, but neither do we live in an ideal world. Yet such a compromise could unify the Jewish community behind an effort to provide some measure of healing for this most painful brokenness in our world.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associatedץ

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