by Hella Winston (Special To The Jewish Week)
March 18, 2009
A bill in the New York State legislature to extend the criminal and civil statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse, and to open a one-year window for victims to file civil suits regardless of when the alleged abuse took place, appears to be splitting the Orthodox community. And it is revealing what may be a growing gap between some of the established communal organizations and the people they claim to represent.
The bill, which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Queens), cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday when it was approved 11-8 by the Assembly Codes Committee. It will now be scheduled for a vote on the Assembly floor.
A rival bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn), was defeated by the committee.
The Lopez bill, which was supported by the Catholic Church, extended the statutes of limitations by fewer years and, significantly, did not contain the one-year window provision. The Markey bill has a Senate sponsor, Sen. Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan).
The Markey bill is controversial primarily for the one-year window, which would enable those presently barred from making claims against their abusers — and the institutions that harbored them — to file suits. Given the spate of recent allegations of long-term cover-ups of abuse in the Orthodox world, this legislation could have a significant impact on these communities and their institutions.
While Agudath Israel, an umbrella group representing the haredi community, has not yet taken a public position on the bill, it has been reported that United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a communal social services organization headed by Rabbi David Niederman, was backing the Lopez bill. Calls to Niederman's office by The Jewish Week were not returned.
In contrast, on Monday the Orthodox Union, a centrist Orthodox umbrella group, issued a statement in "[general support of] the expansion of the statute of limitations to enable victims of sexual abuse to pursue legal claims." The statement added that "we are not opposed to this legislation [the Markey bill]."
Meanwhile, several grassroots groups have been mobilizing in support of the Markey bill.
Survivors for Justice, an organization founded by survivors of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, sent a bus of supporters to Albany last week and followed up that trip with a letter-writing campaign to members of the Codes Committee.
In its letter to lawmakers, the group wrote that "The problem of sexual abuse has gone unchecked in the Orthodox Jewish community for decades and has now reached epidemic proportions as schools within the community and their administrators, as well as the communal institutions and the rabbis who supervise and guide these schools, continue the cover-up. ... Please understand that some of the very same people guilty of horrific cover-ups are now claiming to represent the community in opposition to the bill. Organizations such as Agudath Israel of America and United Jewish Organizations (UJO) have both been identified as having employed and/or protected known pedophiles for decades. They now misrepresent the wishes of the Orthodox Jewish community as their sole interest is in shielding the culpable institutions whose criminal acts are now being exposed."
According to a spokesman for Survivors for Justice, the mention of Agudath Israel in the letter refers to the "decades-long employment of Yehuda Kolko," an alleged pedophile twice convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, in Camp Agudah, a division of Agudath Israel, where several members of the group allege he molested campers. As for UJO, one of the Survivors for Justice's founding members, Joel Engelman, has claimed that UJO's head, Rabbi David Niederman, has worked behind the scenes on behalf of United Talmudical Academy, a Satmar yeshiva in Williamsburg, to prevent the firing of a teacher Engelman alleges molested him at the school when he was 8 years old. Niederman has denied the charge to the Jewish Week.
Uri L'Tzedek, an organization whose mission, according to founder and co-director Shmuly Yanklowitz, is "to bring education and activism and inspiration to the Orthodox Jewish community to live by more just practices and to create a more just society," organized a letter-writing campaign and telethon to legislators, and sent out e-mails to its listerv of several thousand people urging them to voice their support for Markey's bill.
Reached Monday, an aide in the office of Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who chairs the Assembly Codes Committee, confirmed that the office had been flooded with calls in support of the Markey bill.
Yanklowitz believes that "current Orthodox organizations that are taking a stand against the bill [represent] a failure of moral leadership [and are disregarding the long-term impact on] innocent victims of child abuse merely to save their own money and reputations."
Levi Goldenberg, a co-founder of an organization called the Committee for Safeguarding Orthodox Children, also traveled to Albany last week and sent a letter to lawmakers on behalf of his group in support of Markey's bill.
"Some executives in power of some private institutions such as schools, synagogues, mikvehs ... have done everything in their power to keep these stories quiet, out of fear of financial damage," the letter reads. "[And] by doing so they have simply turned their eye on the holiness and spirituality of the human soul and the godly will of sympathy and justice in the most unorthodox Torah and halachic ... manner."
Goldenberg, who is from Williamsburg, claims his group represents "the silent voice of the younger generation of the Orthodox community. There is an awakening in the community." He claims he is hoping to "educate, give information to our crowd [so that they will be] more aware. [They should make the connection that] the ones who are against this bill are exactly the ones who are educating are children."
Mark Meyer Appel, a self-described community activist and founder of a group called Am Echad, urged support of the bill on the Zev Brenner radio show last Saturday night and also organized a small group to distribute fliers about it on 13th Avenue in Borough Park and in Williamsburg on Monday.
"[The Agudath Israel] should have written a bill four years ago, five years ago, to protect our kids," Appel told The Jewish Week. "They are protecting their schools. The people on the board of directors of the Agudath Israel of America have a conflict of interest because they also run schools. ... Sexual predators are sick people. Those that protect sexual predators are worse than sick people. ... [It is] because of them that the sexual crimes are committed."