The first, direct, financial consequence came when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy in order to protect its assets from a slew of potentially large judgments for sexual abuse accusations leveled against its priests and other members of the diocese. This move was a result of the recently passed New York State Child Victims Act, which lifts the statute of limitations on civil child sex abuse cases. This means that, while survivors may not be able to put their abusers in jail, they can sue those abusers and the organizations that ignored the abuse for financial compensation for the harm done them.
The Rochester Diocese isn’t the only one worried about its finances. Some Jewish organizations fought the passage of the law; they’re worried that the lawsuits will force them to close their doors. While their fear of false claims is legitimate, it’s hard to believe that that’s the real problem. They are trying to protect their particular organizations, whether or not the claims against them are real. That’s ironic since trying to protect any given organization, rather than the children entrusted to its care, is usually what caused this problem in the first place.
Let’s be blunt: too many of these children’s claims were dismissed when they were originally made because the school/organization felt that the rabbi/teacher/respected citizen would never have done this. These children were treated as liars or worse, and their families threatened with ostracism if they continued to complain. Sometimes the organizations would move the predator to another position without warning those connected to the new position about the potential problem. People were told not to report abuse to the police unless they received rabbinical authorization to do so – something that rarely occurred. These problems were supposed to be handled in-house, within the community – the results of which were usually the exoneration of the accused simply because people worried more about gossip than the harm done to these children.
If an organization knowingly allowed a predator to continue, then it doesn’t have the right to continue existing. Please note the word “knowingly”: some places were well aware there was a predator on their payroll. A school/organization should investigate all claims against its staff. That doesn’t mean immediately firing the person, but he/she should not be interacting with the accusers, or any children, until they are cleared or dismissed. Numerous complaints about the same person are a signal that something is wrong and should be taken even more seriously. Again, what counts here is that there is a real investigation, not a whitewash. If a person has been found guilty, then not only should that person be fired, but the accuser encouraged to file charges. Child abuse is a crime.
New York state takes this seriously with its own employees and that includes those who work with the developmentally disabled. According to the website of the New York State Justice Center, the Center “is committed to supporting and protecting the health, safety, and dignity of all people with special needs and disabilities through advocacy of their civil rights, prevention of mistreatment, and investigation of all allegations of abuse and neglect so that appropriate actions are taken.” I know that mission is taken seriously. People are regularly investigated – some found innocent and some found guilty. They are not allowed to work with the people who accused them until they are cleared. Even when cleared, some are moved to another position.
Jewish individuals and organizations have a clear obligation to stop child abuse. We must take care to investigate any and all cases that come before us. The reason for the Child Victims Act is that too many victims were ignored. Let this be the last time a law like this is needed. Let us make certain that accusations of abuse are quickly investigated and those found guilty are punished for their crimes.