Attempts to bring justice to victims of sexual abuse are opening old wounds in New York’s strictly Orthodox community and its leadership, which is largely viewed as trying to block these attempts.
Emotions erupted last weekend, as several victims of abuse in the Charedi school system and child advocates protested outside the annual dinner of Agudath Israel of America, the country’s largest strictly Orthodox organisation. Protestors held signs reading, “Agudah Stop Protecting Pedophiles”, and tried to draw attention from the group’s leaders and supporters as they entered the building.
At issue is Agudath Israel’s opposition to a bill introduced at the New York state legislature, which would extend the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse wishing to take legal action against their molesters and the institutions in which the crimes took place. The bill would also give the victims a one-time window of a year to file civil lawsuits, regardless of the time that had passed since the alleged actions took place.
While Agudah decided to oppose the New York legislation, mainly because it could lead to numerous compensation claims against its schools and leadership, the Charedi community is undergoing a process of discussing more openly the issue of sexual harassment and child molestation taking place in its education system.
Last year, a task force was created in order to discuss the issue and provide victims with assistance. Its founder, NY assemblyman Dov Hikind, said at the time that he was surprised by the extent of the problem in the strictly Orthodox community, to which he belongs. “I’ve been absolutely shocked and flabbergasted by what I’ve witnessed,” he said.
Hikind raised the issue after two high-profile pedophilia cases broke within the community. One involved Avrohom Mondrowitz, a youth counselor who was accused of numerous counts of sexual abuse before fleeing to Israel, and the other involved Yehuda Kolko, a teacher who was also charged with similar offenses but managed to secure a plea bargain arrangement.
These cases also illuminated the fact that the strictly Orthodox community, just as the Catholic Church in similar cases, chose to deal with sexual abuse problems internally, without involving the authorities. Hikind said at the time that the Charedi neighborhoods of Brooklyn are the safest place for sex offenders because “your chances of being arrested are much smaller because people don’t press charges”.
The bill in dispute may never become law. According to reports it does not seem to be moving in the New York State Assembly and if it fails to pass before the legislative session is adjourned in several weeks, it will have to be re-introduced again next year.
Officials with Agudath Israel explain that they do not oppose the proposed extension of the period for suing before the statute of limitation kicks in, but they are concerned with the one-year window in which hundreds of lawsuits might be filed. Based on precedents of child sexual abuse cases in the US Catholic church, it is clear that settling these cases might cost hundreds of millions and could lead the religious education institutions to bankruptcy.
“Legislation that would do away with the statute of limitations completely, even if only for a one-year period, could subject schools and other vital institutions to ancient claims and capricious litigation, and place their very existence in severe jeopardy,” Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah, another strictly Orthodox education group, said in a joint statement. At the same time, the groups vowed to continue working to “protect our precious children and help eradicate molestation and other forms of abuse.”