by Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
March 11, 2009
Survivors for Justice, a support and advocacy organization formed by victims of child sexual abuse in the fervently Orthodox world, traveled to Albany this week to educate legislators about the problem of child sexual abuse in their communities and to discuss legislative efforts to help curb it and aid victims in seeking redress.
Legislation is currently pending in both the State Assembly and Senate to extend the criminal and civil statute of limitations on these claims, and to open a one-year "window" in which previously time-barred victims can file civil suits.
"We believe this legislation is crucial," said Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for the group. "[Many] of the cases that SJF has been involved in are perfect examples of the need for this legislation."
One such case is that of David Framowitz, a founding member of Survivors for Justice, who alleges he was abused by a yeshiva teacher when he was 12 but found himself unable to come forward until his 40s. This is not uncommon, according to Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School and the author of "Justice Denied."
"Numerous studies have shown that victims of childhood sexual abuse typically cannot come forward for decades after the abuse occurred," Hamilton said. "They are literally disabled from getting to court. It is simply a scientific fact that it is difficult for them to understand the magnitude of the harm, that they lost their childhood and that their current problems were caused by the abuse until much later in life," Hamilton said.
In addition to the psychological issues that can prevent many victims from coming forward within the current time limit, intimidation by abusers and their protectors is also a significant factor in the delay.
"Usually these institutions that allow these predators to remain, and have historically allowed them to remain, work very hard to keep the victims quiet," said Michael Dowd, an attorney who has successfully represented victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. "That, in addition to the shame and embarrassment, is a very powerful and compelling force."
According to Dowd, the current statute of limitations has served not only to protect predators but allowed them to continue molesting unhindered, thereby victimizing what often amounts to "hundreds" of children over the course of a lifetime.
Currently in New York State, there is a five-year statute of limitations past the age of majority (18) for people to bring civil suits based on sexual abuse claims. The proposed legislation would extend that maximum age another five years, to the age of 28. More significantly, the bill would allow for a one-year "window" in which people who allege they were sexually abused can file civil actions, regardless of when the abuse took place.
The new bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Margaret Markey and in the Senate by Tom Duane.
An alternative bill was filed in the Assembly on Feb. 19 by Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez (D-Brooklyn). This measure would add only two years to the statute-of-limitations period and contains no window for filing retroactive suits for past abuse. Lopez's bill does not contain provisions for raising the criminal statute of limitations from age 23 to 28 and does not currently have a Senate sponsor, a significant obstacle to its passage.
The Assembly Codes Committee is expected to consider Markey's bill early next week, according to a spokesman for her office.
Some of the main opposition to the Markey-Duane bill is coming from the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in New York State. The group's bishops met with Gov. David Paterson on Monday and legislators, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, on Tuesday as part of their annual lobbying day in Albany. A spokesman for the Conference, Dennis Poust, told The Jewish Week, that the Conference does not support the Markey bill because of the one-year window.
"We can't support a bill that has a look-back because frankly the ramifications that we saw in California were disastrous. It cost the church a billion dollars in settlements. People [came forward] from 50-60 years ago," Poust said. While he also argued that the bill "is designed to devastate the Church, but leave public institutions unscathed," he did concede, however, that even if it were amended to include provisions for suing public institutions, the Conference would not support it.
Poust also said that his organization has "been working with Jewish organizations, though not terribly closely. I think we've had conversations with different representatives of the major Orthodox organizations, the [Orthodox Union] and the Agudath Israel. I'm not sure that any of them have taken positions yet," he added.
David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel told The Jewish Week that the group is "studying" both the Markey and Lopez bills, but does not "have anything definitive to report [on the statute-of-limitations issue]. He also added that he "imagine[s] we will have a formal position within the next two weeks or so, unless we hear that the legislation is on a fast track and requires a more immediate statement."
Survivors for Justice is hoping that Agudath Israel will come out in favor of Markey's bill.
"SFJ does not accept the possibility that an organization as influential as the Agudath Israel would work with the element of the Catholic Church that seeks to continue to deny justice to past victims and protection to our children. The Agudath and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) stands for a much higher ideal and we have every hope and belief that they will abide by established halacha, which does not recognize the existence of any statue of limitations but rather relies upon the validity of the evidence presented in each case and be vocal supporters of the Markey bill," said spokesman Soury.
For Joel Engelman, another founding member of the organization who told his story first to The Jewish Week last summer, opening a window in the statute of limitations is his "last hope." Engelman, who filed a $5 million lawsuit against the yeshiva that employs a teacher he alleges molested him when he was 8 years old, believed he had reached an agreement with the school not to go public with the allegations if they agreed to remove the teacher from the classroom. While the teacher, Avrohom Reichman, was let go for a time, he was reinstated several weeks after Engelman's 23rd birthday. Because Engelman's age puts the alleged acts beyond the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution or civil suit, Engelman's lawyer is seeking entrée to the court with a novel legal theory involving a claim of fraudulent inducement, the success of which is uncertain. While Engleman has become aware of other allegations against the teacher, Reichman remains employed by the school to this day, something that infuriates Engelman particularly because he believes other children remain in harm's way.
"If the school won't do anything and the community won't do anything, and the criminal statute doesn't apply, this is my last hope [to make sure no other children are hurt]."