Ultra-Orthodox Lobby Yields As Child Sex Abuse Victims Win Legislative Battle
For decades, some Catholic and ultra-Orthodox leaders in New York have opposed efforts to make it easier for victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers.
Now, with the long-stymied Child Victims Act poised to pass in Albany as early as Monday, opponents in the Catholic Church have continued to argue over aspects of the bill. But Agudath Israel of America, the leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group that has objected to parts of the proposed legislation for years, seems to be fading into the background.
“At this point I believe that they understand lobbying against the CVA is wasted lobbying resources,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of CHILD USA.
The Agudah’s silence on the issue comes at a moment of political weakness for the group, which was close to the Republican leadership of the State Senate. Since Democrats won the chamber in November, the Agudah has faced a sharp loss of influence in Albany, with the State Senate moving into Democratic hands.
The organization declined to provide comment for this story.
The Agudah has spent recent months expending significant political capital to oppose new regulations on the curricula of private schools in New York. But on the Child Victims Act, it has been silent.
“I find that most of the lobbying against the Child Victims Act has been behind the scenes,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat who has backed the bill for years. “This session is a little different in that most of this opposition has evaporated, even from that vantage point… Now that the Democrats control the Senate, they see the handwriting on the wall.”
For the activists and legislators who have been pushing this legislation for years, this final stretch, when passage is all-but-assured, is an emotional time. “Just seeing our pain acknowledged, and seeing the legislature doing something about it, is powerful on its own,” said Asher Lovy, director of community organizing for ZA’KAH, a group that raises awareness about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community.
Hoylman said that he has been working towards passage of the legislation for six years. “To have had a legislature for years that has also ignored their plea, to finally reach the threshold of giving them their day in court is a really profound moment,” he said.
The Child Victims Act, versions of which have been proposed at various points for nearly twenty years, would significantly increase the time limit for child sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers. According to a report Thursday from the Tribune News Service, the plan that the legislature will vote on would raise the age by which child victims must sue from 23 to 55. It would also open a year-long look-back window, during which people who were previously prevented by the statute of limitations from suing their abusers would be able to bring lawsuits.
The Agudah has been a longtime critic of the bill. In 2009, the organization said that it did not object to extending the statute of limitations, but argued that the look-back window could “literally destroy schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community.”
In 2017, the group’s executive director, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, said that the Agudah would support extending the statute of limitations until the victim turns 28, but that the extension until the age of 50 was too long. He also said that the group continued to oppose a look-back window.
Yet in recent weeks, as a bill containing both a look-back window and a statute of limitations extension until the age of 55 move towards passage, Agudath Israel has been all but silent.
“I think Agudah is happy to let the Catholic Church engage in all of this last minute opposition,” Lovy said. “I think they’re happy to take a back seat and focus on other areas of concern for them.”
Some Orthodox voices have spoken out against the bill in recent weeks. In mid-January, the Jewish Press, a right-leaning Jewish newspaper, editorialized against the bill, argued that a wave of lawsuits could bankrupt religious Jewish institutions.
“[I]f the bill passes, anyone can bring a lawsuit, even an unfounded one,” the editorial reads. “Without insurance to fight this, which most institutions don’t have, yeshivas would be financially destroyed, regardless of the outcome of the case.”
Yet the bill hasn’t been a major issue in recent months. That’s in contrast to the energy and concern expended over new state efforts to regulate religious school curricula, which has led Orthodox leaders to take extraordinary measures in recent months, including publishing op-eds in mainstream outlets and producing videos opposing the efforts with leading religious leaders.
The Catholic Church, for its part, has raised muted opposition. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, attacked some aspects of the bill in the Daily News on January 17, though saying that the church supported the legislation in principle.
“[Governor Cuomo] is personally aware that we in the church are in favor of justice for child victims as long as all victims in New York are protected, and all organizations are covered, whether they are private or public, religious or secular,” Dolan wrote.
In particular, church representatives have claimed in recent weeks that the current version of the bill would apply only to victims of abuse at private institutions. Hoylman said that’s not the case, and that it has always been the intention for the law to apply to victims at both private and public schools.
“The last gasp of the opposition seems to be the claim that the bill unfairly targets religious institutions, which is patently false,” Hoylman said.
On Thursday, the Tribune News Service reported that the Catholic Conference had agreed to drop opposition to the bill if the look-back period also covered public institutions.
Meanwhile, supporters of the bill have continued to amp up their efforts. The Forward first reported in mid-January that Judy Rapfogel, the former chief of staff of the disgraced former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, has a $240,000 contract with a Virginia nonprofit to lobby in support of the Child Victims Act.
Hoylman said on Wednesday that legislators planned to move quickly on the bill, though he wouldn’t give a specific timeline. Now, it appears that the vote will come early in the week.
“It will allow us to seek action against those who engage in cover-ups in the future,” Lovy said.