By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
Issue of Nov. 7, 2008 / 9 Cheshvan 5769
At a sparsely attended conference held Oct. 29 at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the seeds of an unlikely friendship were planted between Catholic and Jewish sexual abuse survivors and advocates.
"We need not to be siloed within our religious communities; we need to be thinking more broadly, cooperating more broadly," said Bill Kritston, the head of Bishop Accountability, a group that documents sexual abuse in the clergy.
The conference, organized by the New York chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), brought together victims and advocates of sexual abuse inside the Catholic community and the Jewish community, which recently has seen a spate of allegations of sexual abuse, mostly in chareidi yeshivas. Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind has become the unlikely champion of the cause.
Attendees from the Jewish side included community activist Rabbi Nochum Rosenberg and members of Survivors for Justice, a recently launched Jewish coalition composed of abuse victims and their advocates that encourages Jewish victims to go to secular authorities.
There are parallels between the sexual abuse scandal that occurred among the Catholic clergy and current cases in the Jewish community. In both instances the alleged abuse is widespread. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has been accused of covering-up and abetting accused pedophiles. While no similar claim has been officially made against any Jewish organization, some activists believe there is an ongoing effort to cover-up child molestation; Hikind believes any cover-up stems mainly from ignorance.
Some real distinctions in this regard do exist between the Catholic and Jewish communities.
"The Jewish community doesn't have bishops; they have the general community that may want to hold back from having these sins come out," suggested Joe Barnes, head of SNAP.
A partnership between the two groups of survivors and advocates is likely.
"Sometimes justice comes in numbers," said Lonnie Soury, a member of Survivors for Justice.
The conference also served as a forum to discuss the Child Victim Act of New York State, legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for criminal charges of sexual abuse to age 23. Currently charges can be brought until a victim's 19th birthday. Under the proposed new law the statute of limitations for civil suits would be extended from the victim's 23rd birthday to the 28th. Both groups at the Cardozo meeting share this goal. The bill would also open a yearlong window to bring any sexual abuse cases that are currently beyond the statute of limitations.
Marci Hamilton, the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must do to Protect its Children," was a speaker and co-organizer of the conference.
"Victims typically take decades to come forward and the way the law is right now, most victims never get to court before the statute of limitations expires," she explained. "Right now we have a system that prefers predators to children."
Alaska, Delaware and Maine have abolished the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse; Delaware has passed a two-year window, which is still open; and California enacted similar legislation that allowed for a one-year window and an extension of the statute of limitations. Similar Child Victim Acts have been introduced in New York, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
The Child Victim Act, sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Queens), must pass both houses of the state legislature in order to become law. Armed with the blessing of Speaker Sheldon Silver it has passed unanimously in the Assembly three times. However, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno opposed the bill and it has never been brought to a vote.
Opponents of the bill include the New York Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the Roman Catholic Bishops of New York, and insurance companies that could find themselves on the hook in hundreds of lawsuits if the bill passes.
With Bruno retired, the decision now rests with his successor as majority leader, Senator Dean Skelos, who so far has not taken a position. In a statement to The Jewish Star, Scott Reiff, a spokesperson for Skelos, said that the senator has already passed a bill that extended the criminal statute of limitations for most sex abuse cases, as well as authored Megan's Law, which created a sex offender registry.
"Going forward, Senator Skelos will be working very hard to make sure the State legislature continues to do everything possible to protect New York's children," the statement concluded.
However, another spokesperson for Skelos later said, "there are clear reasons why extending civil statutes of limitations is problematic."
A spokesperson for the New York Catholic Conference, Dennis Paust, explained that his group opposes the bill because in their view it unfairly targets non-profits and private institutions. He feels that the bill is, "about bankrupting the Church," and that the Child Victim Act was, "a trial lawyer bill to enrich trial lawyers." He also believes that any changes to the statute of limitations should first be made in cases concerning the public schools where, Paust alleges, the majority of non-familial sexual abuse takes place.
Informed that a concurrent bill being put up would extend the statute of limitations for public institutions, he predicted that, "there was a snowball's chance in hell" of it getting passed, due to opposition from teacher's unions.
"Marci Hamilton is full of it," Paust asserted. "Why not do the public school bill first? That's where the abusers still are... Why should today's Catholics pay for the sins of someone 60 years ago?"
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a study that found that four percent of all priests who served in the United States from 1950 to 2002 were engaged in some sort of sexual misconduct.
Agudath Israel of America has not decided whether or not to support the bill, said Rabbi Dovid Zweibel, Agudah's Executive Vice President for Government Affairs. In an e-mail he explained: "Our rabbinic leadership simply hasn't had occasion to decide whether we should get involved. If the bill looks like it will be moving forward, we'll try to get guidance from them then."
Among the short-term ramifications if the bill were to pass, are lawsuits that could be revived against Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn, former rebbe and accused molester Yehuda Kolko and his boss, Lipa Margulies, who is accused of covering for Kolko. The lawsuits recently were dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Hamilton is optimistic about the bill being passed.
"We open a window of opportunity and revive hope that was not there before," she said. "There will always be dark parts of our society sadly, but the more we talk about these issues and the more opportunities we give anyone to come forward the more likely this will protect children from abuse."
The Jewish Star has learned that Shlomo Leiberman, a licensed clinical social worker, will coordinate Assemblyman Dov Hikind's task force on abuse. Leiberman, a graduate of Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work, has been practicing in the field for 15 years, is the clinical director for Bechirot and serves on the advisory board for the Sephardic Bikur Cholim Mental Health Referral Service. He will work part-time with Hikind's office to collate the testimonials of abuse victims and develop a working plan to present to the national rabbinical leaders.
Agudath Israel of America says it is now prepared to support a bill that would make fingerprinting and background checks mandatory for private institutions, though Rabbi Dovid Zweibel, Agudath's executive vice president for governmental affairs, said they, "would like to see how the voluntary bill is implemented first." Previously, the organization had stated it would consider supporting the voluntary version of the bill.