Two Yeshiva University staffers Friday urged passage of a bill that could potentially harm their own school, which is currently under scrutiny because of allegations it failed to address child sexual abuse over several decades at its high school affiliate.
Professor Marci Hamilton and Rabbi Yosef Blau testified at a New York Assembly hearing in support of the Child Victims Act, which would make it easier for adults who were abused as children to file suits against institutions that they believe were negligent in protecting them.
Currently, any victim of child sexual abuse who fails to file such a suit by his or her 23rd birthday is barred from doing so by New York State’s statute of limitations on such crimes. The Child Victims Act would abolish those limits for cases going forward and open up a limited, one-year window during which those abused in the past could file civil law suits against their abusers, and against institutions that knew or should have known about such abuse committed by members of their staffs.
The bill, versions of which have been offered four times in previous years, is expected to pass the state assembly easily but faces a tough test in the state senate.
Both the Catholic Church and the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, Agudath Israel of America, have publicly opposed the bill in the past. Many experts on child sexual abuse say it can take far longer than the current statute allows for victims of abuse to understand and confront what was done to them as children, and then go to court for redress, which can exacerbate already existing trauma.
In a series of stories starting last December, the Forward found more than 20 former students at Yeshiva University High School for Boys’ Manhattan campus who said they had been abused by two senior staff members over a period ranging from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s. Several of the former students say they or their families alerted Y.U. officials to what was going on at the time but got no response. One of the senior staff members, high school principal George Finkelstein, left Y.U. for a school in Miami, Fla., where a student has told the Forward he, too, was abused by this administrator.
At the Friday hearing, held in Manhattan, Blau told members of the Assembly’s Codes Committee, “I know that there are members in my own community…fighting this bill. I think that’s a mistake.”
He added: “Within the community that I know, people are not looking to sue; they want institutions to change, they want institutions to acknowledge what was done wrong in the past because institutions protected abusers, they sent them from one school to another. As long as they left one place, [they saw it as] not their problem anymore.”
The emotional hearing was presided over by two Democrats, Assembly members Joseph Lentol and Margaret Markey, the bill’s sponsor, and a Republican, Assemblyman Alfred Graf.
Hamilton, Paul Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, laid out some hard truths.
“Right now, New York is practically the worst state in the country,” she said. She cited several other states that have already passed or are considering legislation that extends or abolishes statutes of limitations in the case of abuse victims. Hamilton added that one in four girls and one in five boys are sexually abused, and that close to 90 percent never go to the authorities, causing the clock to run out.
“This bill is a sunshine law for children,” she said.
Asked by Lentol about a prominent case of sexual abuse in the Williamsburg Satmar community — an apparent reference to the recent conviction of Satmar Hasid Nechama Weberman on multiple child sexual abuse charges — Blau said that the verdict was a “powerful message” but that it was still “only a drop in the bucket.”
“I’m part of a Modern Orthodox community. We think we’re much more attuned to the modern world, but we have our problems,” he said, in what appeared to be a reference to the ongoing investigation at his own school.
Blau was quick to point out that this problem was not limited to a particular Jewish denomination, or even a particular religion. “It’s not a Catholic problem, it’s not a Jewish problem, it’s a human problem,” he said.
Other testimony came from representatives of individuals involved with cases child sexual abuse that took place at Horace Mann School in Manhattan and Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn. Advocates from national organizations in support of abuse survivors, and former victims of abuse also testified.
All agreed that New York State’s current statute of limitations allowed individual abusers and institutions to run out the clock, and avoid taking responsibility.
“People who abuse children do not retire from molesting,” said Christopher Anderson, Executive Director of MaleSurvivor, who was abused by a neighbor as a child.
Richard Gartner, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who specializes in male sexual abuse, explained that often, the trauma is too great for a child to face. “I have seen over a thousand patients since the 1980s,” he said. “ I can only think of two who came [to me] before the New York statute of limitations was reach by age 23. I have known men to come forward in their 60s and beyond who had never told a single person.”
When the state denies abuse survivors justice because of a time limit, Gartner added, “the state is re-victimizing these people yet again.”
As for Markey, she is ready to do what it takes to change the status quo. “I find it mind boggling why any elected official would want to protect pedophiles,” she said, referring to State Senator Jeffrey Klein.
Klein, a key member of the state senate’s leadership, has gone on record against the provision of Markey’s bill that would make institutions civilly liable for negligence if their employees committed abuse that they knew or should have known about but failed to act against.
Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.