by Larry Cohler-Esses, Editor At Large
David Zwiebel of Agudah says he is closely watching emerging details of proposed sex abuse legislation in the Senate and Assembly.
The recent rash of cases in which rabbis have allegedly molested young children going back decades has moved one group that usually bristles at government involvement in Orthodox schools to envision shifting its stance.
"Our general sense is that we're much better off when government leaves us alone," said David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America for government and public affairs. "But because of the sensitivity of this particular issue, I could see the possibility of our rabbis affirmatively encouraging schools to buy into the system, and even maybe affirmatively encouraging government to impose it on us."
Zwiebel was speaking specifically about a new law that will, for the first time, allow non-public schools to voluntarily take part in a program to fingerprint school employees for use in criminal background checks.
But for Agudah, an umbrella organization of ultra-traditional Orthodox groups that seek a degree of insulation from the secular world, it was a striking statement.
To be sure, Agudah contemplates no welcome mat for a mandatory government fingerprint program just yet. That would be "quite premature," said Zwiebel. Agudah, he said, wants first to see how the state implements the voluntary law.
But in an interview with The Jewish Week, Zwiebel, with whose organization many in Albany check first on legislation involving the Orthodox community, appeared to offer a wary road map to supporting greater oversight by the government on issues relating to sexual molestation of children.
The pressure for increased government involvement has been building for years. It began with the shocking emergence earlier this decade of Catholic priests who, it turned out, had molested children under their care for decades, and had often been protected by their Church superiors.
More recently, credible allegations have emerged here in New York against a small number of yeshiva rabbis said to have also sexually abused their students over several decades. The alleged victims - often now adults - have also charged that the yeshivas and rabbinic supervisors were informed about their teachers' conduct but did nothing, or even protected them.
Now, state Assembly Member Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), who has become deeply involved in this issue, speaks of hearing "hundreds" of reports of rabbinic sexual abuse - reports that appear to him to be credible. This week, speaking at a conference on this controversy, Hikind for the first time numbered these reports in the "thousands."
Slowly, and somewhat erratically, the state legislature has begun to take up the question of legal reforms to address this situation. The fingerprinting law passed last year will permit non-public schools to voluntarily take part in a program that is already mandatory for all public schools.
But some lawmakers hope to go further next year, with legislation to make non-public school participation mandatory. They also want to pass a bill that would make clergy and non-public school officials "mandated reporters" - individuals required by law to report to the authorities any information or evidence they receive that a child has been abused or molested in a school setting. Public school officials are already required to do so, thanks to an education law passed in 2000 that excluded the private school sector.
Another bill, now stalled by differences between the Assembly and Senate, would extend the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of molesters and for civil suits to be filed against them. Presently, prosecutors cannot go after a child molester once the child in question reaches age 23. And a child victim of sexual molestation must sue his molester - or a school that fails in its duty to protect him - for civil damages by between one and six years after he turns 18, depending on the nature of the allegation. But experts say child victims can take many years, or even decades, after they reach adulthood to process what was done to them and act on it.
Agudath Israel does not oppose any of these measures in principle, Zwiebel said. But God is in the details. And one red flag for the group is disparate treatment.
"It's never been our position that non-public schools should be treated differently than public schools," when it comes to protecting children, he said. "But our position is that they should not be singled out."
This led Agudath Israel to vigorously oppose a 2003 proposal that would have required members of the clergy and certain categories of religious educators and administrators to go to the authorities with any information they had received about child abuse by other clergy over the last 20 years. Inspired by the continuing revelations coming from the Catholic Church, the bill singled out the duty of these religious workers to report on their colleagues - but not on sexual abuse from other sources.
In a memo then to leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, Zwiebel denounced the legislation as "patently unconstitutional" for its "apparent assumption that religious functionaries, more than any other element of society, are inherently suspect - and should therefore be subject to special legal scrutiny and reporting requirements - regarding allegations of child abuse."
Since then, critics have frequently denounced Agudath Israel's stand as obstructionist and cited its opposition to this bill as evidence of an intent to shield rabbinic abusers. Condemnations on the Internet against the group have been especially angry and intense.
But Zwiebel said that if the Legislature were to introduce a bill that simply included non-public school officials in the duty to report evidence of abuse of students in a school setting, as public school officials already must do, "At a minimum, I am pretty certain we'd advise our friends in the Legislature we don't oppose this."
As for efforts to expand the statute of limitations, whether criminally or civilly, "I don't imagine we'll oppose any of that" either, Zwiebel said. "Whether we would affirmatively push it, I can't answer."
Indeed, legislation on this appears to be stuck between the State Senate and the Assembly. And according to a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County), it is opposition from the Catholic Church and the insurance industry that is playing a role.
The Assembly's bill would significantly extend both the criminal and civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse going into the future. But the Democratic-dominated Assembly is determined to also give those now beyond the civil statute of limitations a key back into the courts. Its bill would establish a one-year "window" for adults with allegations of childhood abuse to file suit, regardless of when the abuse took place.
Skelos' spokesperson voiced concern about this provision, citing the potential difficulties of obtaining evidence in very old cases. The Senate, he noted, has passed three different bills to eliminate or extend the criminal statute of limitation. But it has refused to pass the Assembly's bill. The Assembly, in turn, has held fast against the Senate's bill.
Meanwhile, the regulations have yet to be published for implementing the law passed last year that would allow non-public schools to opt in on fingerprinting and criminal background checks of its staff.
Zwiebel made clear that Agudah's willingness to accept a bill to make this mandatory for non-public schools will depend on how the voluntary program goes.
One regulation under consideration, he related, would institute a "roach motel" principle: Once a school chooses to opt in, it will not be allowed to opt out.
"I'm troubled by that," he said. "It doesn't sound like wise public policy."
Another proposed rule would mandate that a school opting into the system must require every employee to be fingerprinted, without exception.
"I don't understand that part of it," he said. "It would allow us no discretion to [exempt], say, certain veterans about whom there have never been any questions from a criminal background check."
Still, he said, "I'm not necessarily implying those two rules would push us away. I'd like to know exactly what the details are."
In many cases, Zwiebel said, Agudah's views have been misrepresented. He pointed, among other things, to an error in a recent Jewish Week story - since acknowledged - that stated the group opposed a mandatory fingerprinting law and another to make yeshiva officials mandated reporters.
But referring to disturbing exposes that have appeared in this paper and elsewhere, he said, "Some of the anguish and pain that has come in the last few years, though uncomfortable, promotes consciousness of a problem that's been in the shadows. So, though our views have been misrepresented, I can't say [the critics] are bad people. They obviously care a lot about this issue."
Hella Winston contributed to this story.