One of the most prominent issues of our day is sexual abuse and harassment. Recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein have ignited a national conversation about sexual misconduct of all kinds. The dialogue has stretched from the personal experiences of victims, to societal problems which have helped abusers continue to commit abuse. As an institution with its share of sexual abuse scandals in the recent past, such conversations are not irrelevant to Yeshiva University. In fact, it is imperative that Yeshiva University begins to take a role in these conversations, and it is a sad reality that currently, the university remains relatively silent.
One of the major issues plaguing sexual abuse reform relates to statute of limitations laws that prescribe the time limit for convicting someone after a crime has been committed. Many advocates believe that in the context of sexual abuse crimes these laws aid abusers, and prevent victims from getting their moment in court, and thus, some modicum of justice. In New York state, many advocates have specifically rallied around reforming the statute of limitations laws for child sexual abuse, which are considered some of the most restrictive in the country. A victim of child sexual abuse has just three years after turning eighteen to file a civil suit against an institution for hiring or supervising an abuser, and just one year to sue the abuser him or herself. For a criminal case, the victim has just five years after turning eighteen to press charges. In contrast, in other states that do have these statute of limitations laws, the number of years given to the victims after reaching maturity is often far greater, and in some states there are no statute of limitations on child sex abuse at all.
It is of course these very statute of limitations laws that allowed YU to dodge a $680 million civil lawsuit filed in 2013 by 34 former Yeshiva University High School for Boys students. The lawsuit claimed that YU had deliberately ignored and covered up the sexual misconduct of two long serving educators at the high school during the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Although the university’s lawyers advanced a number of arguments for why they should not be culpable, the decision of the judge, as well as the judges in the federal appeals court, was based solely on the claimants’ “failure to institute a suit for more than twenty years,” meaning that their claims were denied because the statute of limitations had long since expired.
Advocates for reform in New York have proposed the Child Victims Act (CVA), a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations on child sex abuse for all future criminal and civil cases. The bill also includes a window of opportunity provision, which would provide a one year window for lawsuits no matter when the abuse took place. Proponents of the bill argue that in child sexual abuse cases it can take decades for victims to even recognize their own abuse, let alone build up the courage to pursue their abuser in court.
A slightly altered version of the bill passed the New York State assembly this past June, but it must still make its way through considerable opposition in the state senate before it can become law. Since it was first proposed a decade ago, the CVA has languished in Albany largely because of the staunch opposition of the Catholic Church, which claims that the window of opportunity for civil suits would financially cripple the Church. The Church was already forced to pay $1.2 million in settlements of civil cases after a similar law was passed in California in 2002.
Marci Hamilton, a legal scholar, former teacher at Cardozo law school, and outspoken reformer on issues of child abuse, including statute of limitations reform, noted that it is precisely through civil cases that one can “document an institution’s negligence and the way it failed children.” Without the possibility of civil suits “they won’t fix their internal procedures…because they don’t have to.”
Some advocates for reform in the Jewish community therefore feel that YU should in some way demonstrate support for the CVA, as a sign that it has truly changed its ways and is committed to helping future victims get the justice they deserve.
Other Jewish Organizations affiliated with Yeshiva University, such as the RCA and the OU have not taken a public stance on this law. On the other hand, Agudath Israel, the powerful umbrella organization for the Haredi community in America, has taken a public stand against the CVA, specifically because they claim the elimination of the statute of limitations on civil suits and the window of opportunity provision “could subject schools and other vital institutions to ancient claims and capricious litigation, and place their very existence in severe jeopardy.” They end their statement opposing the law by saying, “We must also redouble our efforts to help those who have suffered the horrors of child abuse obtain the healing they so desperately need. However, we dare not bring down our most vital communal institutions in the process.”
Nonetheless, Jewish Community Watch, a nonprofit group established to protect Jewish children from abuse and to help survivors of child sex abuse, endorses the CVA as a positive step in assuring that the law supports, not handicaps, victims. Considering not only YU’s prominent position in the American Jewish landscape, but also its past wrongdoings, some advocates feel that the university should publicly support the CVA, or at the very least some version of statute of limitations reform. They believe that YU’s support might also provide some validation, and perhaps comfort to victims of the abuse at YUHSB. These advocates claim that although YU has clearly mishandled such situations in the past, they can do right going forward, especially with a new administration that has not been tainted by handling the abuse either first-hand, or in court.
When The Observer asked President Beman what he thought of the proposal for YU to publicly support statute of limitations reform in cases of child sex abuse, he said that he was not familiar with the particularities of the laws in question, but that his “heart certainly goes out to any victim of any crime anywhere.”
While I think that it is important to learn about these laws, I completely understand the new president’s general hesitancy on the proposal. Releasing such a statement would obviously require complex moral gymnastics. While the university’s lawyers did not rely on the statute of limitations to argue their case in court, there is no debating that it is why they won the case. Although a public demonstration of support for reform would be a positive step in terms of acknowledging past wrongdoing, it would certainly raise eyebrows at the very least, and more likely cries of hypocrisy. More significant, however, is the fact that YU is not a policy organization like the Agudah or the OU, and it was not made to publicly endorse specific laws or types of legal reform.
So what has YU done to move forward and improve? The university released a report after the YUHSB scandal which detailed their improved practices regarding keeping students and employees safe from sexual misconduct. A sexual harassment training session is also given (although by no mean forcibly required) at first year orientation. These internal improvements are significant and should be commended, but procedural improvements are not enough.
Issues of sexual abuse are in the air now, but our university has not responded in any meaningful way to this new dialogue. It seems our university does not enter this dialogue at all for fear of stirring the dust of its scandal. While this is understandable from a strictly public relations perspective, the truth is that our university cannot escape these stirrings no matter what tack it takes; people have not forgotten what happened. Recent events on the national stage, including Weinstein’s demise, likely mean that the memory of it will only be injected with greater urgency.
So what can YU do to enter this dialogue in a wise and honest way? It seems clear that improvements will not come from statements. But improvements can come if the university does what it was made to do: teach. While the university does not routinely enter into public policy issues, it has hosted events and speakers to discuss and raise awareness for other public policy issues, like opposing BDS or the Iran Nuclear Deal.
President Berman himself emphasized exactly such an approach to dealing with complex contemporary issues. In explaining his decision after Charlottesville to release the reader exploring the event from different disciplines as opposed to merely releasing a statement of condemnation, President Berman said, “We are not a statement making institution, we are an educational institution, we teach the issues. Our strength is in bringing our enormous intellectual resources to bear on the current contemporary issues of our day.”
So the university should treat this issue as it has treated other complex issues like it and “teach the issues.” As an educational institution this is our responsibility, and as President Berman said himself, it is our unique “strength.”
So how can we enter the dialogue on sexual misconduct in a productive way and truly “teach the issues?” Perhaps a symposium with legal scholars and advocates on statute of limitations reform for child sex abuse and other sexual misconduct may be a good way to educate students. Even if the university would like to, understandably, distance itself for statutes of limitations reform, it could still educate on general issues of sexual misconduct. Hosting an event with Jewish Community Watch, which has held events across North America, to raise awareness among the student body could be a good way to start. Tradition, the journal of the RCA, just released a new issue on sexual abuse in the Orthodox community–a round table with the authors of some of the articles featured in the issue could be another productive way to begin an educational dialogue. The RCA provided RIETS and GPATS students with copies of the journal. Maybe YU could supplement additional copies for the student body and discussion groups could be organized.
While students can, and should, take initiative and request events on this important issue, the university should not wait for students to take initiative on an issue as critical as this. The university administration should lead the way and start this dialogue. Whatever route the university would choose to take to start that dialogue, sexual misconduct is certainly just the sort of issue on which YU’s “enormous intellectual resources” could, in some way, be brought “to bear.”
YU certainly has made mistakes in the past, but I want to emphasize that I do not bring up these mistakes to rehash old sins or further embarrass this institution. While some may accuse me of trying to weigh down the new administration at a time of great momentum, arguing that it is better to leave this issue, and all issues relating to it, in the past, I believe that the we can longer deny that the past is still with us–of course it still affects the victims, but it also still affects the mentality of this university.
It is therefore precisely at this moment of increased momentum that these issues must be addressed with the honesty and openness that this “world of tomorrow” requires of us. I bring these issues up because I love this university, consider it a religious and intellectual home, and want it to live up to its true “strength.” I bring up these issues because it is time for the past to stop hindering us from having open and fruitful conversations about how we can do better in the present.