Three years ago, Mordechai Twersky seemed to have run out of options in his fight to hold Yeshiva University accountable for the abuse he says he suffered decades ago as a student at its high school.
Two separate federal judges had decided that the lawsuits he and other former students had filed, claiming that the Yeshiva University had for decades covered up and ignored reports of sexual abuse, had come decades too late.
Now, a new New York State law signed in February, called the Child Victims Act, has vastly extended the time frame for child sex abuse victims to seek legal redress, and it’s giving Twersky another shot.
Late Tuesday, Twersky’s attorney, Kevin Mulhearn, filed in New York State Supreme Court one of the first motions in what’s expected to be a tidal wave of litigation set off by the new law. The motion, called an application for pre-action disclosure, asks the court to compel Y.U. to turn over evidence it gathered the investigation it commissioned in 2013, and to allow Mulhearn to begin taking depositions.
Mulhearn says he needs the information to prepare a new lawsuit, to be filed after the window to file formerly disallowed claims opens in August.
“How does it feel? Like we’re girding for war,” Twersky wrote in a letter to the Forward. “Yeshiva [University] hoped we would simply disappear. And some of us who attempted to take our own lives almost did…. The [Child Victims Act] will finally give us our day in court against an institution which allowed monsters under the guise of rabbis to murder our souls and violate our bodies.”
Yeshiva University did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the motion.
The rebooting of the Yeshiva University litigation comes as sex abuse survivors across New York State wrestle with how to respond to new opportunity provided by the passage of the Child Victims Act to have their day in court. While the law offers the possibility of justice, it also could bring stress and other emotional challenges for survivors.
While few survivors are willing to discuss their plans for litigation, it’s increasingly clear this summer in New York will see the resurfacing of hundreds, if not thousands, of buried claims of sexual abuse.
One prominent attorney representing victims of sexual abuse, Michael Dowd, who is working with Mulhearn to represent the former Yeshiva University high school students, said that he expected his office to file between 50 and 150 lawsuits in August alone.
“You’re going to see a lot of cases filed out of the chute,” said Leander James, another prominent sexual abuse attorney, who advised legislators on the drafting of the Child Victims Act. “People are waiting for justice a long time.”
The Child Victims Act, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in February, upends a statute of limitations that was among the most restrictive in the country.
The new law will allow people who survived sexual abuse as children to sue until they are 55 years old, and will allow prosecutors to file criminal charges until the victims are 28. It also provides for a so-called “look-back window,” beginning this August and lasting a year, that will allow survivors like Twersky, on whom the statute of limitations had expired out under the old law, to bring their suits.
Religious groups, including the Catholic Church and some Orthodox Jewish organizations, had long opposed the legislation, arguing that it could bankrupt religious schools and other institutions facing claims for long-ago abuse.
Now, sexual abuse survivors are lighting up the phones of attorneys who specialize in sex abuse cases. “I’m getting calls every day, often multiple people on a day,” Dowd said.
For the survivors, it’s a difficult time, as they decide whether they want to go through the inevitable challenges of a legal battle. “It’s very stressful,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of Child USA, who has been a prominent advocate of the Child Victims Act. “On the one hand, they need to be seriously considering therapy to get through the legal system.”
Hamilton said that the nature of the legal process, which sways from periods of intense activity to long and frustrating waits, can be emotionally challenging for victims. “Therapists need to be involved in order for the survivors to do well,” she said.
For the attorneys, too, hearing the stories of scores of sexual abuse survivors who approach them for legal advice can be emotionally trying. “It’s really caused me a lot of problems and sleeplessness,” Dowd said. “It’s terrible. Awful.”
The extension of the statute of limitations lifts one major roadblock for victims seeking justice. But legal experts warned that other legal challenges remain. Since so many claims in New York have historically been barred by the statute of limitations, there’s not a substantial body of decisions clarifying when an institution is liable for abuse perpetrated by one of its employees.
“These cases didn’t percolate down into the courts to create a real body of law, judgment law, to explain under what circumstances institutions will be liable for abuse,” James said.
Still, many survivors seem ready to move forward. While most of the new lawsuits will wait until August, Mulhearn’s petition in the Yeshiva University case is starting things off early.
In this latest filing, Mulhearn and his colleagues represent thirty-four plaintiffs, three of them named and thirty of them unnamed.
The Yeshiva University high school students’ stem come from perhaps the most high-profile Jewish communal sex abuse scandal of the past decade, uncovered in December 2012 by the Forward’s Paul Berger. In a series of articles, Berger reported that two staff members at Yeshiva University’s high school had sexually abused students, and that the school had allowed the teachers to leave and find jobs elsewhere.
Twersky, who says one of the staff members inappropriately wrestled with him several times, was a key figure in bringing the scandal to light. He and other former students filed a $380 million lawsuit against Yeshiva University in 2013, which a federal court dismissed as time-barred. An appeals court upheld the ruling. A second complaint, filed in 2015, met a similar fate.
Now, Twersky and the other Y.U. survivors are trying again.
In the newly-filed petition, Mulhearn demands authorization to depose two witnesses, both of whom are in their 80s. He also asks that the court order Yeshiva University and its contractors to preserve the records of their 2013 investigation into the sexual abuse allegations, which the school launched following the Forward’s report.
Finally, Mulhearn asks that the court order Yeshiva University to allow him to see the complete records of that investigation, which found instances of Y.U. failing to protect its students, or not responding to allegations of sexual abuse, as late as 2001.
Mulhearn argues in the filing that he needs the information to bring the claim under the new Child Victims Act.
“The boys who were going to YU high school, they were like lambs to the slaughter,” Mulhearn told the Forward. He said that his clients were largely eager to take another shot at the case. “Most of them were enthused and excited about the prospect of actually having their day in court.
Twersky, for his part, acknowledged that he and his co-plaintiffs were exhausted. “TO be sure, we are tired. Many of us are ill and suffer the effects that years of trauma have had on our lives,” he wrote. “The trials will, no doubt, be traumatic, and Yeshiva, will again likely not hesitate to rip out our stitches. But we are strong. Determined. And this time we will prevail.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.