In the wake of the passage last week in Albany of the Child Victims Act, Orthodox leaders are cautioning that “fears” of a barrage of potentially crippling lawsuits from alleged victims of child sexual abuse against yeshivas and camps “are real.”
“The fact that law firms are actively seeking child victims is reason enough for our concern,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, the large charedi umbrella group, told The Jewish Week in an email.
Agudath Israel issued a statement shortly after the bill passed on Jan. 28 that its “look-back window” — a provision that allows victims of any age to pursue claims during a one-year window that begins six months after the law takes effect, even if the statute of limitations has run out — “could literally destroy schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in North America, expressed the same concern.
“We share the concern about the potential impact on institutions that the one-year window may have on schools and institutions but recognize and support the children who are the victims in these cases,” he wrote to The Jewish Week in an email.
In terms of what kind of settlements victims might receive, a recent case offers one example. That year Brooklyn Yeshiva Torah Temimah agreed to pay out $2.1 million to two former students, who said they were molested by their teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, when they were 6 years old.
While the RCA and other centrist Orthodox groups have been largely mum on the issue, the ultra-Orthodox community, alongside the Catholic Church, has consistently opposed the bill’s passage, for fear of the act’s possible financial impact. A divided state legislature in Albany allowed the bill to languish for years. But now, with the Democratic takeover of both houses of the legislature in November, the majority party moved quickly to pass the bill, which had long been a Democratic priority.
To those groups still objecting: You’re simply on the wrong side of history.
In addition to the one-year look-back window, the bill allows child victims of sexual abuse to file claims against abusers until the victims reach the age of 55 in civil cases, a significant increase from the previous age limit of 23. For criminal cases, victims can seek prosecution until they are 28.
And while groups that once opposed the bill, such as the Catholic Church, laid down arms and unequivocally praised the bill’s passage on Jan. 28, Orthodox groups stood alone in continuing to express objections — in formal statements and in a slew of articles across Orthodox media platforms.
Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, a nonprofit that works to prevent child abuse, said the conspicuous response of Orthodox institutions is “very telling.”
“The fact is that only the yeshivas are still complaining,” said Hamilton, who sees the “alarmist rhetoric” as an “attempt to claim they [the yeshivas] are the victims.”
“The bishops tried this years ago and failed,” said Hamilton. “The Orthodox community is proving itself to be behind the curve. These organizations are incapable of seeing beyond their own immediate needs to the needs of the victims they created.”
Still, while expressing serious concerns about the bill’s potential repercussions no longer has sway in Albany, charedi and Orthodox institutions may well be targeting another audience, said Hamilton: their own constituents.
“The statements and op-eds and hand-wringing about yeshivas going bankrupt is really a coded message about religious beliefs,” said Hamilton, a legal scholar, who pointed out that no bankruptcies have been linked to similar look-back provisions implemented in other states.
“That message is meant for victims within their own community: Don’t tell outsiders about the bad behavior that has taken place in our organizations.”
These statements discourage members of the community from reporting abuse in the first place…
Michael Lesher, an attorney and the author of “Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities,” agreed with Hamilton: The communal response to the bill is akin to “deploying an internal weapon.”
“These statements discourage members of the community from reporting abuse in the first place, and, if abuse is reported, there are practiced methods of intimidating complainants,” said Lesher.
He cited a recent op-ed in a widely disseminated charedi newspaper that praised Agudath Israel’s continued objections to the bill and referred to lawsuits that might result from it as “nuisance lawsuits.”
“Victims reading this can read between the lines: If you were thinking of bringing a lawsuit, you are a nuisance and your case is a nuisance,” said Lesher. “Institutions matter, and you don’t.”
Rabbi Shafran said Agudath Israel will “certainly not” dissuade victims from bringing lawsuits against Jewish camps and schools. The umbrella group has “no plans for further action beyond our statement.” He wrote:
“It is widely known that the prime advocate for the well-being of Orthodox educational institutions is, as has always been the case, Agudath Israel.”
Asher Lovy, an advocate for victims of child sexual abuse and himself a survivor, said the outcry from the charedi community in response to the bill’s passage is “really a budgeting issue.”
“If you’re going to let rabbayim [rabbis] molest in your yeshiva, you have to budget for the inevitable liability,” he said.
Lovy said the fear being promulgated by Orthodox groups that one victim would shut down a day school is a “lie.”
“There is no such thing as one survivor shutting down a yeshiva,” he said, referring to the precedent set in other states. “The focus has been overwhelmingly placed on institutions, when the majority of abuse takes place outside of institutional settings.”
Among survivors, the look-back window is referred to as the “hidden-predator” clause. “This provision is as much about identifying individuals who pose a threat to children as it is about confronting institutions,” said Lovy. While in the past victims were largely prevented from publicly identifying abusers because of potential libel charges, victims can now speak out through the courts “to warn parents about adults who may still pose a threat to their children.” (Civil court proceedings will show up on a routine background check.)
The priority now, according to Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs for Safe Horizon, a leading victim assistance organization, is ensuring that “New Yorkers across the state understand what this law does and how it could be helpful to them.” The group is undertaking ambitious outreach efforts to promote awareness of the new legislation.
“While not every survivor will choose to seek redress in court, every survivor of child sexual abuse deserves to know that he or she has the opportunity to do so,” said Polenberg.
Gary Greenberg, a sex-abuse survivor who created a political action committee to promote passage of a Child Victims Act 13 years ago, said last week’s victory felt “almost surreal.”
“When I first got involved in this issue, I thought ‘who could possibly be against this?’” said Greenberg, 59. He quickly learned that “we were up against powerful special-interest groups with a lot of influence and money to spend.”
With the passage of the act last week, Greenberg said he feels that child victims of sexual abuse can “finally begin the journey towards justice and healing.”
“To those groups still objecting,” he said, he has a blunt message: “You’re simply on the wrong side of history.”