by Hella Winston (Special To The Jewish Week)
April 1, 2009
The legislative effort to help victims of child sexual abuse in New York State got much more complicated this week as two competing bills have now been cleared to go to a vote on the Assembly floor.
The bills are sponsored by Margaret Markey (D-Queens) and Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) respectively, and have already set up a showdown, pitting survivors of abuse and their advocates — who support the Markey bill — against major Catholic and Jewish institutions, which are backing the Lopez version.
The Markey bill, which made it out of the Assembly Codes Committee earlier this month by a vote of 11-8, extends the civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. More significantly, it creates a one-year window during which anyone can file civil actions, regardless of when the alleged abuse took place.
In California, similar "window legislation" cost the Catholic Church $1.2 billion in settlements, while also publicly identifying some 300 pedophiles who had previously been beyond the reach of the law due to short statutes of limitations.
The Lopez bill, which failed to garner enough votes earlier this month but was revised and voted out of the committee on Wednesday by a margin of 18-1, also extends the statutes of limitations, though by fewer years than Markey's bill. More significant, however, the Lopez bill contains no provision for a window.
The sole "no" vote was cast by Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, a Democrat whose district includes portions of the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, Manhattan Valley and West Harlem.
According to advocates for victims of child sexual abuse, opening a one-year window in which currently time-barred claims can be brought is crucial. This, they say, is because it typically takes victims decades to come to terms with their abuse, let alone feel able to speak out about it and confront their abusers publicly. Those who support a window note its role not only in providing some measure of justice to victims, but also in identifying previously unnamed sexual predators, who most likely would otherwise continue preying on children.
"The purpose of the Markey bill is to expose the pedophiles who have been out there and hiding," said Michael Dowd, an attorney who has successfully represented Catholic victims of child sexual abuse. "[The Lopez bill] just ignores the central problem. If you were going to have a bill that made any sense, you would have a bill that had a window. If you want to have it apply to public and private institutions, fine. But not to do anything about past sexual abuse is not doing anything to uncover pedophiles."
Groups that supported the Lopez bill in its first incarnation include the Catholic Conference, the Sephardic Community Federation and the United Jewish Organizations, a Williamsburg-based social services organization whose head, Rabbi David Niederman, has close ties to Lopez and to the United Talmudic Academy (UTA).
UTA is a Satmar yeshiva that is currently being sued for $5 million by Joel Engelman, who alleges that a teacher at the school molested him when he was 8 years old. His suit contends that the yeshiva entered into a promise with Engelman to fire the teacher, which it did, until a few days after Engleman turned 23 and was beyond the statute of limitations.
While Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has publicly championed the cause of sexual abuse victims since last summer, was a co-sponsor of Markey's bill, he was also a co-sponsor of the first Lopez bill. In fact, Hikind recently told the Five Towns Jewish Star that he was opposed to the window provision in Markey's bill and is now a co-sponsor on the revamped Lopez bill. Hikind did not return calls seeking comment.
According to Marci Hamilton, professor of law at Cardozo Law School and author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children," the "correct name for the new Lopez bill [should be] 'The Hide the Predator Act.'"
"Unlike the Markey bill, this bill does absolutely nothing to help New Yorkers identify the many secret child predators in New York, who have been benefiting from the short statutes of limitations for decades. With the Markey bill, we have a proven method of finding the predators in our midst. The Lopez bill gives them continuing cover to abuse our children."
Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for Survivors for Justice, a group of abuse survivors who grew up in Orthodox communities, urged the legislators to "stop playing politics with our children's lives. Any support for the Lopez bill is at the behest of, and in the interest of, the Church and a few Orthodox Jewish institutions and not designed to protect children and their families from predators."
No date has been set for either bill to go the Assembly floor for a vote. The powerful Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has supported Markey's bill in the past — it has passed the Assembly three times and been blocked in the Senate — but has apparently not offered his support this time around.