It is widely accepted that around 1 in 5 children – 20% of the population – experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18. We also know that a very small proportion of victims ever disclose their abuse and that those who do, typically do so more than twenty years after the fact. These alarming statistics highlight the prevalence as well as the long-term and profound impacts of child sexual abuse. But they also emphasise the urgent need to change the way in which the statute of limitations operates in some regions when it comes to cases of child sexual abuse. That upon attaining the age of 23 in New York, a victim loses the right to pursue justice (criminally or civilly) against their abuser, is out of touch with what we now know to be the reality of such cases.
Brave victims and survivors who muster the courage to disclose their abuse must have recourse to justice at whatever time they decide to come forward. Moreover, perpetrators must be held to account no matter how much time has passed after a particular offense, not only for the sake of justice but also to protect other children who might otherwise be vulnerable. It is simply absurd that an offender may receive lifelong immunity from their crimes through the passage of as little as five years and continue to pose a danger to children, while their victims typically spend decades working up the strength to talk about their detrimental life-changing experience, which often accompanies them for a lifetime.
I am therefore pleased that Kol v’Oz, a newly-established Israel-based organisation to address child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, has assembled a broad and strong coalition of local and international Jewish organisations, leaders and rabbis to support the change to these outdated laws in New York (where the largest Jewish community exists outside Israel), which are considered the worst in the US alongside those in Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi.
I acknowledge and thank the many individuals and organisations – within and outside the Jewish community – who have been working tirelessly on these changes until now. Moreover, I would like to congratulate the numerous legislators who have been addressing this issue, most notably Assemblywoman Margaret Markey who initially proposed the Child Victims Act (also referred to as The Markey Bill) around a decade ago.
While our coalition holds diverse opinions regarding the ideal reforms to the statute, we are united in our view that the status quo must be changed. Most agree that the statute must be completely abolished and at the very least, an extended window must be provided for bringing actions for past crimes that better reflects the time taken for victims to speak up.
That is not to say that the burden of proof should be lessened. Indeed, in most cases it is those pursuing justice rather than their alleged perpetrators who will be most prejudiced by the passage of time. The potential unavailability of witnesses and difficulty remembering events of so long ago only serve to make it harder for a complainant, who might already be in the difficult position of trying to make a case from their word against that of another. But courts should have an opportunity to hear evidence and, if the evidence is strong enough to find a perpetrator liable, then they should be held accountable. Victims should always be entitled to have their cases heard in court, rather than being blocked by a legal technicality, which makes little sense in this area today. We must focus on the rights and wellbeing of the victims and place those ahead of the rights and wellbeing of the perpetrators.
After consulting with some of my colleagues, my strong belief is that a bill should be passed in the New York State Legislature that allows any victim of child sexual abuse – in the past or future – to launch civil proceedings against their abuser when they feel ready to do so. However, to protect institutions to some degree from possible financial ruin, and to encourage best practice in the running of today’s institutions, those institutions who meet certain standards ought to be protected to some extent by a financial cap on each claim. Moving forward, police should be able to pursue criminal cases against any alleged perpetrator once a crime has been reported.
It is important to emphasise that revisiting the abuse in any form, including pursuing justice, is often re-traumatising for victims. So it’s not a decision they take lightly. Moreover, in the majority of cases, victims are mostly interested in an acknowledgement and an apology for the injustice they endured. Financial compensation is typically of secondary importance, notwithstanding that victims often suffer financially as a result of the abuse they endured.
While most of the current public discussion about child sexual abuse is focused on institutions, it’s noteworthy that the vast majority of this form of abuse – around 80% – in fact occurs within the family environment. Uncles, step-dads, granddads, neighbours, tutors and others. Eliminating the statute of limitations will no doubt provide justice for many of these victims as well. It will also protect other young family members from these predators.
I’m looking forward to joining my colleagues – both within and outside the Jewish community – in doing everything we can to ensure the statute of limitations is eliminated. This includes lobbying days in the New York State Legislature in Albany on 3-4 May, facilitated by Assemblywoman Markey whom we support. I urge the entire Jewish community and beyond to join us in our public campaign to achieve this essential reform. We can no longer turn a blind eye and say we don’t know about the prevalence, the impact or the injustice. The time to act is now.