With Spotlight on Orthodox Community, A Bill That Would Challenge Sex Offenders

By Fred Mogul (WNYC News)
May 18, 2012

The recent focus on the problem of childhood sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community may help spur a Queens legislator's attempt to make it easier to prosecute or sue alleged sex offenders. But her bill is getting push back from religious leaders who worry it could open a floodgate of lawsuits that would bankrupt yeshivas and other institutions.

Assemblywoman Margaret Markey wants to extend the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases, which currently only allows victims to pursue perpetrators in criminal or civil court for five years after they turn 18 – in other words, until age 23.Markey has proposed doubling that to ten years – extending the statute of limitations to age 28.

"This legislation is to identify pedophiles and hold them accountable, and to identify those who have protected them," Markey said, "And only by doing that can we protect children."

Markey's bill also allows a limited-time-only complete suspension of the statute of limitations, so that people of all ages would have one year to bring suit against alleged abusers, once the law goes into effect. After those initial 12 months, people would be limited to one decade from their 18th birthday to make criminal or civil complaints.

She hopes recent news reports on the unwillingness to report sexual abuse among the often insular ultra-Orthodox and the widespread practices of going to influential rabbis rather than police and civil authorities will bring her bill a broader audience among her fellow legislators.

"I think it's going to make people feel compelled to vote for this bill to address the issue," Markey said. "It is a major problem in our society and we have to do something about it."

Markey had initially hoped her bill would be a starting point, and that after initial passage, she would come back and further extend the statute of limitations, or abolish it altogether – as it is for murder and rape. But Markey's bill has been stalled for years. It has passed the Assembly four times since 2005, but has always died in the state Senate.

Markey's bill has been stalled for years. It has passed the Assembly four times since 2005, but has always died in the state Senate.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have long opposed Markey. Two leading Orthodox groups, Agudath Israel of America and The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, say they support extending the statute of limitations, but worry that allowing people to sue institutions and not just individuals "could subject schools and other vital institutions to ancient claims and capricious litigation, and place their very existence in severe jeopardy."

"One could envision a scenario in which a senior citizen might choose to bring a claim against a school for an incident that allegedly occurred over half-a-century ago when the claimant was a child," the groups said in a joint statement. "The current school administration, entirely ignorant of what may or may not have occurred so many years ago, would be forced to defend the school in a court of law, incur the high expenses of legal fees and diversion of human resources, and face potentially crippling financial liability."

The groups have the backing of Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Borough Park power broker, who has released a rival bill. It's similar to Markey's in almost all respects, except it exempts religious institutions from lawsuits during the one year grace period when there's no statute of limitations at all.

Hikind wasn't available to comment, but staff members said he believes victims primarily want to go after their perpetrators, not the institutions they come from, and that they're after justice, not money.

Markey's supporters among in the ultra-Orthodox community disagree.

"The only way this problem is going to be resolved within our community and beyond, the only way institutions that have recklessly harbored child molesters are going to change their behavior is when they know there is a price tag," said Ben Hirsch, from Survivors for Justice, an advocacy group.

Markey's bill doesn't currently have any co-sponsors in the State Senate, but she has met with officials in the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and is asking them to submit it as a "program bill." That wouldn't guarantee passage in the GOP-dominated chamber, but would improve the odds.

Cuomo's office declined to comment.