“The Lopez Bill is not designed to become law. It’s designed to prevent the Markey bill from becoming law.”
Michael Orbach, The Jewish Star
April 3, 2009 — Web Exclusive
Proposed child abuse legislation that had been left for dead got an unusual new lease on life this week when it passed a New York State Assembly committee after first being soundly defeated.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn), would extend the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse for civil cases by two years. A redrafted version of the bill passed the Codes Committee on Tuesday by a margin of 18-1. The bill will now be voted on in the full Assembly, before making its way to the State Senate.
Sexual abuse activists have criticized the Lopez bill saying that it would help sexual predators. They claim it is meant to detract attention from the Child Victims Act, stronger legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Queens), which would extend the civil and criminal statutes by five years and, more critically, open up a yearlong window to bring cases that currently are beyond the statute of limitations.
An earlier draft of the Lopez bill, critics revealed, even went so far as to exempt private institutions, like churches and yeshivas, from being liable for sexual abuse acts committed by their employees. Supporters of the Lopez bill maintain that the Markey bill does not treat public and private entities the same way and is therefore discriminatory.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), whose recent campaign against sexual abuse inside the Chareidi community drew national attention, co-sponsored both Lopez bills as well as the Markey bill. At an event to promote sexual abuse awareness on March 22, Hikind announced that while he had objections to the yearlong window, he would support the Markey bill. Hikind declined to comment to The Jewish Star for this article, but in a letter to The Jewish Week, he wrote that he will “support the notion of a window provision, but with some type of limitation” and stated that he will seek a compromise between both bills, one that will yield a “significant change to sexual abuse legislation as it currently stands.”
The New York Catholic Conference came out strongly against the Markey Bill, as Catholic groups have opposed similar legislation across the nation. A similar bill passed in California cost the Catholic Church $1.2 billion in awards to sexual abuse victims. In New York, the bill faces additional opposition from some Jewish organizations.
The executive director of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, Rabbi David Niederman, told The Jewish Star that the yearlong window “would make it impossible for innocent people to defend themselves” and that it would serve as a “deterrent” for qualified teachers.
United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg is closely affiliated with United Talmudic Academy of Williamsburg, which is currently being sued by Joel Engelman, 23, who alleges that a teacher in the school sexually abused him when he was eight years old. Engelman’s case is now beyond the statute of limitations; his case would likely be strengthened if the Markey bill were to pass.
Other Jewish organizations have wavered on the Child Victims Act bill. The Orthodox Union has said it favors an extension of the statute of limitations and does not oppose the Markey bill. The OU has not taken a public position regarding the Lopez bill. In an op-ed in The Jewish Star, David Mandel, the CEO of Ohel, the largest Jewish social service organization, said Ohel supports the extension of the statute of limitations but made no mention of the yearlong window. Agudath Israel has not come out with a position regarding either bill as of Friday afternoon, April 3.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University and the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children,” said it was a “non-event” that the Lopez bill had made it out of committee, after all.
“The bill accomplishes nothing for victims,” Hamilton explained. “It’s classic form to make them look like they’re doing something, but it is keeping the secrets and keeping the predators under wraps.”
For Hamilton, the window is the most crucial element of the bill.
“We know how the window works,” she said, noting that when a similar bill passed in California, 300 previously unknown predators were identified. “It’s pretty simple — if you’re against the window, you don’t want the predators out.”
Among the members of the Assembly Codes Committee who voted for the bill, sentiment was mixed. Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), the chair of the committee, felt that both bills were valuable tools for preventing child abuse and that a compromise between them was possible.
A spokesman for Assemblyman Thomas Alfano (R-North Valley Stream) said that while Alfano voted in favor of the Markey bill in the past, the Lopez bill was “better legislation.” Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Little Neck) said that he voted in favor of the Lopez bill since the window in the Markey Bill is “not a deterrent.”
“It opens up a Pandora’s box and that’s the reason why there’s a statute of limitations in the first place,” asserted Weprin.
However, Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), said that the Assembly favored the Markey bill.
“I think that the consensus is that the Markey bill is the better bill,” Cymbrowitz told The Jewish star. He also said that the Lopez bill’s main claim of equality between public and private institutions is a “red herring.”
Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), who cast the only vote against the revamped Lopez bill in committee, seemed almost disgusted with the proposed legislation.
“The Lopez Bill is not designed to become law. It’s designed to prevent the Markey bill from becoming law,” O’Donnell explained to The Jewish Star. “Without the window, victims of sexual abuse who are seeking justice and healing will be deprived. Many of these victims fear that their abusers are still at large and have access to children; their [the victims'] primary concern is what happened to them does not happen to another child at the hands of their victimizer.”
Assemblyman Vito Lopez did not return calls.
[Hat Tip: DRF.]