New York – Op-Ed: Agudath Israel and the Markey Bill: Financial Bankruptcy vs. Moral Bankruptcy


     Dr. Asher Lipner, Ph.D [photo credit Hella Winston]New York – Agudath Israel in consultation with its Moetzes Gedolei Yisroel (Coucil of Torah Sages) has finally decided not to support the Child Victims Act of State Representative Margaret Markey. The Markey legislation would extend the statute of limitations on both criminal and civil cases involving the sexual abuse of children, and it would open a one-year “window” durring which all past cases of abuse could be presented in court. It is being supported by both Orthodox assemblymen – Dov Hikind, who has become a champion of the rights of victims, and Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the Assembly, who has voted for it three times. The benefits of allowing all victims of abuse to confront their abusers in court are best explained in Cordozo Law Professor Marci Hamilton’s book, Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect It’s Children. Aside from giving survivors of sexual abuse a chance for justice, similar “window” legislation in two other states have helped society identify over 350 sexual predators who were unknown before the legislation. The alternative bill that Aguda is presumably backing, which does not include such a window, is referred to by Ms. Hamilton as the “Hide the Predator Act”.

    In lockstep with the Catholic Church, their partners in fighting this much needed legislation, Agudah argues that allowing victims of all ages to sue molesters would put into jeopardy, not only the molesters themselves, but also any institution that knowingly or negligently harbored molesters. This would constitute a potential drain on community resources, (since some important Jewish institutions will undoubtedly be implicated because of a long standing tradition of silencing victims in the community) especially at a time when the economy has hurt our institutions’ ability to do so much good for so many people.

    I hope the Agudah reconsiders its misguided position and takes into consideration that on this issue, doing the right thing may actually pay dividends “both in this world and the next”. Showing the proper compassion, integrity and sense of justice that the victims of sexual abuse deserve and parents of Jewish children demand, not only is the moral thing to do, but may actually serve to avert many a lawsuit in the long run.

    An article in the New York Times last year entitled “Doctors say ‘Sorry’ before ‘See you in court'” documented that when doctors were taught to no longer “deny and defend” but rather “disclose, apologize and offer fair compensation” malpractice suits were shown to drop by up to two thirds. “Malpractice lawyers say that what often transforms a reasonable patient into an indignant plaintiff is less an error, than its concealment, and the victim’s concern that it will happen again.”

    Regarding sexual abuse of children, we need look no further than to the recent scandal in the Catholic Church to learn what motivated so many victims of clergy abuse to sue their perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them. Mary Gayle Frawley-O’dea, a psychoanalyst and expert both on sexual abuse and on the Church scandal, has written two books on the dynamics and the history that went into the eventual lawsuits that have cost the church so far upwards of three billion dollars in settlement payouts. She describes the horrors that victims of abuse were put through when they came forward about what happened to them, by a massive cover-up perpetrated by bishops more concerned with their church’s image than with children’s safety. This evil reaction to the abus of children under their care was enabled by the arrogant assertion that “nobody would ever dare sue the Catholic Church.” The tactics used by bishops to intimidate and harass victims who spoke up eventually did leave victims, quiet for decades, with no other choice but to sue.

    Unfortunately, some yeshivas and Orthodox institutions have acted similarly, and the behavior patterns of both leaderships are eerily similar. Who could forget the Satmar mother on the radio, explaining the extreme lengths that she and her son (who was molested in a Williamsburg yeshiva) went to, in order to have the matter redressed “Bederech Koovod”, (in a respectful and dignified manner) only to find themselves with no other recourse but to sue when the yeshiva reinstated the molesting rebbe to his classroom just days after the victim’s 23rd birthday when the statute of limittations goes into effect. Likewise, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said in his “Grand Jury Investigatin of the Church” that “In some cases, the Grand Jury finds that the diocese procrastinated for the sole purpose of making sure that the Civil and Ciminal Sttues of Limiation were no loonger applicable in the cases.”

    In yet another Chillul Hashem (Desecration of G-d’s name), several claimants alleging sexual abuse at the hands of a rebbe of another yeshiva were forced to sue only after they first provided the yeshiva with a number of opportunities to do the right thing and protect the children. The victims even summoned the administration to a beis din, (religious court) but they were unsuccessful in getting any response. In fact, several victims were courageous enough to tell their stories to rabbis at Torah Umesorah, only to have their abuse discounted because, according to one “Halachic authority,” since there had been no sexual penetration there was no crime.

    Ironically, in the secular world, it has become de rigueur for prominent people who sexually abuse to be forced by societal pressure to come clean, apologize and enter treatment. When a U.S. Congressman was caught sending illicit emails to underage pages that worked for him, he resigned in disgrace, publicly apologized and announced he would be getting professional help. There were no lawsuits.

    A group of survivors of abuse by a rebbe in a well-known yeshiva, have involved me in trying to confront the yeshiva and ask its administration to take some concrete and serious action after the rebbe admitted to the abuse and was “retired”. They want the community to be notified of the danger posed by the rabbi, that he get sent for psychiatric treatment, that the yeshiva reach out to any unknown victims, and that they institute reasonable safety precautions that would protect against the same kind of tragedy happening in the future.

    What truly shocked me was that a friend of mine asked me “Why would they want to take down an institution that has taught Torah for so many years?” Au contraire; if anything, the love and appreciation that these men have as alumni of this yeshiva, is expressed in their sincere desire to make it a safe place for students to learn. Perhaps this friend was projecting his own feelings onto the victims, thinking that revenge is what he would want to do if it was his child who had been molested. Indeed, perhaps those owners of Yeshivas on the Moetzes who are afraid of lawsuits are also projecting the desire for punishmentonto victims, because of their own guilty feelings. The victims, however, rather than wishing for the “taking down” of the yeshiva would gladly want it to continue teaching Torah under the same management with two important modifications: No more molesting and no more covering up.

    Make no mistake, by the way; the leadership crisis is not limited to the Chareidi or the “Yeshiva World.” A prominent modern orthodox youth group associated with the Orthodox Union, was found to have covered up for years for a rabbi who abused dozens of teen-agers, both boys and girls, under his care until the scandal was exposed in the pages of a non-Orthodox newspaper. The rabbi-predator eventually went to jail, but only after years of the OU’s rebuffing in the strongest means possible, any attempts by survivors to have him removed from proximity to children. Until this day, almost ten years later, the OU has yet to offer a public apology, to publish the findings of the independent investigation it paid community money to conduct, or most importantly, to warn Jewish parents of the danger this rabbi, now out of jail and still professing his innocence, poses for children. However, the OU has at least, courageously joined the RCA and the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children in supporting the Markey legislation showing more concern for children than for the danger of potential lawsuits against its “interests”. Survivors of clergy abuse under the OU will undoubtedly feel indebted to them for supporting the survivors’ efforts at gaining justice, at some risk of harm to themselves.

    The OU is aware that most victims have proven to want nothing other than to have the perpetrators removed from harming children, and to have institutions act responsibly by creating safety measures and accountability. To be sure, an apology and admission of negligence on the part of the institution would obviously be welcomed as well. Like with all Tshuvah, our community establishment needs to admit, be contrite for and stop the sinful behavior and then ask forgiveness from the victims it has so terribly harmed.

    However, literally adding insult to injury, victims who have respectfully and courageously come forward, have been bullied, intimidated, vilified and marginalized. In one case, a concerned parent was summoned himself by a prominent Rosh Yeshivah (dean) to a beys din for daring to spread “false rumors” about the molester! This kind of reaction, perpetrated on a traumatized victim of abuse is often more painful than the actual abuse itself. As an example, when the Vietnam veterans returned home, not as welcome heroes, but as scorned and shunned criminals, the levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reached heights that no other war veterans could ever match. Picture what a Holocaust survivor feels like when they hear someone denying or minimizing their trauma.

    Alternatively, while there is no amount of apologizing or even monetary compensation that can give a survivor back what was taken from him or her, the validation and support of the community can go a long, long way towards healing the hurt, and thereby lessening the anger and need for justice. As one Chassidic adult survivor explained, if he had been mugged and beaten on the street, his warm caring community would have rushed to his aide with support, concern and sympathy. But since he was victimized by a rabbi in a horrific sexual attack, when he told people his “dirty” secret, it was he and not the abuser who was disdained. Through my work with victims, I know of so many cases of girls and boys who were literally expelled from Yeshivas for the crime of “being molested”. The depth of the trauma lies not so much in the act of abuse (although that is traumatic enough), but in the aquiescence of people in the victim’s environment.

    Just as with medical malpractice, most people will not sue if the Jewish establishment will do the right thing and side with the victims and not against them; support Markey, admit the mistakes of the past, acknowledge the pain of the victims, reach out to them to support them, and work to ensure children’s safety. This must include encouraging witnesses and victims to report to law enforcement authorities all criminal sexual behavior, just as Halachic authorities like Rav Elyashiv have mandated us to do. “If you see something, say something.” Our rabbinic leadership should also immediately warn parents not to send their children to preschools, camps or schools that do not have at the very minimum a safety plan in place. Most overnight camps have begun to implement these programs but our schools lag far behind. Aguda needs to endorse not only the idea of mandated fingerprinting and background checks in all Jewish schools, but mandated reporting laws, mandated safety plans, mandatory firing of a teacher who molests even once, and the creation of our own registry available to schools and to parents of teachers who have been found to have acted inappropriately towards children. This would at least catch us up to the bare minimum of safety required in all public schools in New York.

    The current position of Agudas Yisroel that goes against the opinion of virtually every single child safety group in the country, has retraumatized many of the victims it claims it cares so much about. After first being molested, then being threatened, intimidated and otherwise pressured to keep quiet for so many years by rabbis and yeshivas, in an attempt to cover up the community’s ills, now having the “Gedolim” attempt to deny them their day in court is something that many victims will not soon forget. Trauma, as the Catholic Church has found out, has a paradoxical effect on the human mind. On the one hand, victims of interpersonal trauma are often left without the ability to immediately recall what happened to them. The mind defends against the incredible overwhelming pain by repressing, “splitting off” or “dissociating” these memories. On the other hand, deep inside the brain the barbaric acts are seared into the neural pathways, making them impossible to forget.

    The brazen placement of the value of community assets over the value of chidren’s safety is all the more shocking since it runs contrary to the halacha on statutes of limitations as expressed by the Agudah’s own Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, when he avised students who alleged they were molested by Rabbi Mattis Weinberg to sue him in Israel because Rabbi Kaminetsky “did not know that there was such a thing in halacha” as a “statute of limitations.” (See The Foreward, September 19, 2003). The Aguda’s grave mistake in priorities lies in their claim that yeshivas, shuls and summer camps are “the very lifeblood of the community,” when all Jews know that it is our children who are our lifeblood and nothing else. It is they who the Chosen people were required to offer as collateral when we accepted the Torah, according to the Medrash, to guarantee that we will remain worthy of our covenant with G-d. And it is their very breath that keeps the universe in existence according to the famous Talmudic statement.

    The Agudah’s thinking here is not only a sign of callousness and cruelty, it doesn’t make good economic sense. If anti-semites would want to stir up victims of abuse and hurt them so bad that they would feel compelled to sue Jewish institutions, they could not have devised a better way to do it than what Agudah has done with their pronouncement. In the end, nobody can guarantee that if the Child Victims Act passes, no yeshiva or institution will be “taken to the cleaners”, especially in the more egregious cases of willful covering up of the molestation of innocent Jewish children. But when I pointed this out to a friend who is an adult survivor of abuse, and expressed concern that some yeshivas of this type may be forced into bankruptcy, he wisely told me not to worry, explaining that such institutions “are already bankrupt – morally.”

    Asher Lipner, Ph.D. holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from The Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies of Adelphi University. He completed his formal internship training at Harvard Medical School and is a NYS certified school psychologist. Asher also has Smicha (Rabbinical Ordination) from Bes Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ. He has worked for the past 5 years in the Orthodox Jewish community with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, and serves as the Vice President of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children.

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