By Rebecca Dube (Forward.com)
Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
At the urging of the Catholic Church and some Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish leaders, the state legislature has given new life to a bill to address child sexual abuse considered weaker than one favored by groups representing sexual abuse survivors.
The competition between the two bills is small potatoes in a state Capitol wrangling with a $16 billion budget deficit. But it's a big deal to Catholic and Jewish survivors of sexual abuse who have mounted an unprecedented united lobbying effort.
The bill they favor had already passed out of committee and was expected, until recently, to go to a vote soon, without competition.
Both bills, one sponsored by Queens Democratic Assemblywoman Margaret Markey and the other by Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, extend the statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases against child molesters. The main differences are that the Lopez bill applies equally to public and private institutions, while Markey's covers only private institutions. And the Markey bill, favored by survivor groups, includes a one-year window during which sexual abuse victims who have "aged out" of the statute of limitations can sue, even if the abuse happened decades ago.
Advocates of Markey's bill say the window is crucial for adults living with the burdens of childhood abuse who would not fall within the new statutes of limitation being proposed. A similar provision in California led to hundreds of lawsuits and identified 300 accused sexual predators, many still working with children. Experts say abused children often cannot process what was done to them until well into adulthood.
"Any support for the Lopez bill is at the behest of, and in the interests of, the church and some Orthodox rabbinical institutions, and not designed to protect children and their families from predators," said Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for the group Survivors for Justice, which represents child sex abuse victims from the Orthodox community. "These legislators who have supported this alternative [Lopez] bill should be ashamed of themselves."
Lopez's legislative assistant, Debra Feinberg, says his bill creates an equal playing field for all victims of sexual abuse. She said the window provision may be unconstitutional–though it has never been ruled so in California or Delaware, two states that have implemented it.
Feinberg said that Markey's bill encourages "predatory" attorneys to seek out plaintiffs, while Lopez's bill was designed in consultation with defense attorneys. She was acknowledged she was unaware of any sexual abuse survivors supporting Lopez's bill.
Many Jewish organizations support Markey's bill, including the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America and the Union for Traditional Judaism. But the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a Brooklyn group dominated by the Satmar Chasidic sect, opposes it and favors Lopez's proposal.
"The concern I have about the Markey Bill is the open window," said UJO leader Rabbi David Niederman. "Basically innocent people will become victims."
Institutions that knowingly protected child molesters — a charge that some alleged victims have made against yeshivas, including a Satmar school — could be liable for millions of dollars in damages if Markey's bill passes.
Earlier this year, the Codes Committee passed the Markey bill, while Lopez's bill appeared to die. But on March 31, the committee resurrected a slightly reworked Lopez bill and passed it. Both bills are headed to the Assembly floor, but it's possible only one will get a vote.
New York Governor David Paterson expressed reservations about the one-year window in an interview with Newsday and said he preferred the Lopez bill.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who has been criticized for his handling of sex abuse cases in the Orthodox community, has announced a new program aimed at helping Orthodox victims report crimes.
"Sex crimes exist in every community and are always very difficult for victims to discuss," Hynes said in a news release. "Because of the insular nature of Orthodox Jewish communities, many victims are reluctant to report crimes to secular authorities."
Victims can now call a hotline and speak with a "culturally sensitive" social worker and a prosecutor from the sex crimes bureau, the official said.The number for Project Kol Tzedek (Voice of Justice) is (718) 250-3000.