When victims of child sex abuse come forward to seek justice and stop abusers from harming others, unbelievably they are blocked by New York State law. New York ranks among the worst in the nation — alongside Alabama, Mississippi and Michigan — for how its courts and criminal justice system treat survivors of child sex abuse.
If you think a law doesn’t make much difference, take a moment to consider Sara:
“When I was 13 and 14 years old, I suffered repeated violent sexual assault by a man who was part of my religious community, a family friend who stayed over at our house. He told me that if I told anyone what he was doing, I would bring my family shame and they would blame me. I believed him. When he came to my bedroom at night, I would try to push him away, but he was stronger than me: I was trapped. I did not have words to describe the horror that I was enduring. By the time I healed enough to understand that it was not my fault, that I was a victim and could speak up about the abuse, it was too late. The New York State statue of limitations for sexual abuse was up. Our legal system no longer considered my story valid.
The predator who abused me is still at large, and because of the statute of limitations, I can do nothing to protect his present and future victims.”
As faith leaders, this issue is particularly painful and urgent. Rather than being a source of healing for victims of child sexual abuse, our religious institutions have too often discouraged victims from getting the legal and social help they need; faith leaders have been enablers; and horrifically, they have been perpetrators. Faith communities are beginning to acknowledge and undertake the hard, painful and sometimes disruptive work of confronting the specter of child sex abuse in our communities, develop policies for prevention, and support its victims.
It’s time the NY state legislature does the same. In 2017, 43,000 children in our state will be sexually abused, but will have just five years to pursue criminal or civil claims after they turn age 18. Mental health experts have long shown that it can take years and even decades for a victim of child sexual abuse to overcome the fear, shame and trauma before they are able to come forward to confront their abuser. As a faith leader, I have met people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are only now coming to grips with what happened to them as children. I have seen the wounds whose pain cannot be overstated. Time does not heal all wounds.
For the first time, hundreds of faith leaders are coming forward to support a New York State bill called the Child Victims Act. As faith leaders recognizing the mandate to pursue justice, this perverse legal loophole that favors offenders, blocks us, and it fails victims and all children who need protection from predators that go unstopped. Sadly, some religious institutions have actively pressured our state legislators to reject various forms of this bill from passing for ten years now, and legislators favoring the bill have seen their re-elections threatened and some have even been denied communion.
We appreciate that Governor Cuomo has expressed support for this bill for the first time. As this legislative session comes to its close, we are counting on his leadership to finally get it passed, thereby supporting victims instead of abusers and making all of us proud of New York State.
A few states are leading the nation, like Minnesota, California and Delaware, which have extended statutes of limitation laws and created windows for victims denied justice to bring claims forward within a limited period of time, usually a year. Importantly, these states have also identified hidden predators and increased protection of all children.
While opponents argue that changing the statute of limitation will expose institutions to frivolous claims and shut them down, the research is clear. False claims make a tiny percentage of abuse claims. Further, many states have no statutes of limitation for crimes like kidnapping, rape, forgery and more. Why should the most profound crime perpetrated against a child be any different, let alone less worthy?
It’s also time we admit that the sin of sexual abuse cuts across all faith communities and all denominations, from the most liberal to the most orthodox. True, the community and pastoral work must be done parish by parish, synagogue by synagogue, mosque by mosque, but standing up for victims in our state legislature must be done with one voice and with the support of legislators who value the rights of all children.
The bible teaches us to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.” When it comes to the protection of children from sexual abuse, there is no middle ground. Silent clergy are as unacceptable as is maintaining the status quo through broken laws that allow this most despicable form of abuse and the lasting harm it inflicts, to thrive.
Sara says we must pass the Child Victims Act (S809) “to protect children from the hell that they cannot conjure words to describe.” There can be no more idly standing by.
About the author:
Rabbi Ari Hart is an orthodox rabbi, founder of Uri L’Tzedek: Awaken to Justice, and currently serves as the Associate Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx.