Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia
Posted In Criminal Law

The Year in Review: 2012 Marks the Highest Watermark Yet for Victims of Child Sex Abuse

The conviction of prominent Satmar Hasidic school counselor Nechemya Weberman for child sex abuse caps a year in which giant strides were taken to push back the sex abuse of children in institutional settings.  Weberman is a depraved pedophile who deserves the maximum sentence, but the most important part of this story lies in the facts that the Brooklyn District Attorney finally brought a prosecution against someone in the politically-powerful Satmar community, and that the victim’s family stood behind her.

Before this case, the situation was bleak in the Satmar community, where members, led by their rabbis, shared a commitment to keeping sex abuse and incest a secret from the outside world.  The rabbis had the hubris to place the religious enclave above the needs of each child, thereby giving pedophiles like Weberman the space they needed to prey on children.  With this brave survivor pressing charges, and a conviction successfully procured, we moved closer to justice for the victims in this insular community.

Moreover, there were other signs arising from this case that tell us that the world has forever changed for such victims.  Not only did the victim here step forward, as so many have now done in the institutions that have covered up abuse, but her family supported her.  Her mother actually applauded her daughter’s bravery, and her parents stood behind her.  That is a sign of a shift in the tectonic plates of our society.

Like the game-changing documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa, which I reviewed in this prior column here at Justia’s Verdict, this case educated the public once again about the features of the abuse that happens in close-knit communities.

The predators are wily, as they place themselves in positions of authority where a child has few defenses, and then look for the child who is different, and unlikely to fight back.  In this case, the girl who suffered abuse had asked innocent, but probing questions about religion at her school, and was rewarded by being sent to counselor Weberman, along with criticism and a sense that the principal did not approve of her.  She was labeled a “rebel,” although her mother now explains that, “She wasn’t a rebel at all. She was a shy, very smart child. She likes to know. Very bright child.”

The Groundwork That Has Allowed Child Sex Abuse Prosecutions to Be Brought Even Against Religious Authority Figures

The groundwork for this historic case has been laid over the last decade, starting with the now-iconic Boston Globe revelations about the Catholic bishops’ complicity in the sex abuse of children by priests in the Boston Archdiocese.   As that story was replicated in one American diocese after another, the public became more and more educated about such crimes, and the victims in other institutions started to emerge from the shadows.  Now, virtually every religious organization has had to deal with this issue in some form.  And those with theological beliefs that require them to keep scandal from seeping outside the organization, like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have had pronounced problems.

Just over a year ago, that pattern was also revealed at Penn State, where football was tantamount to a religion, and where the men in power permitted children to suffer while protecting the team, or, in other words, their own power.  When the Jerry Sandusky story broke, you did not need a playbook to understand it, because the pattern of abuse and cover-up had been laid out, in all of its details, in one religious organization after another.

This past summer, the Summer of 2012 saw the parallel tracks of the criminal acts in the Catholic Church and Penn State cases intersect when on the very same day, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse, and Msgr. William Lynn was convicted of covering up abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, as I discussed in this column.  We now await in 2013 the trials of the high-level administrators who contributed to making the conditions right for Sandusky to abuse multiple children.

Then, the Fall of 2012 witnessed the historic release of the Boy Scouts’ “perversion files,” which document decades of knowledge of abuse by Scout leaders in the organization, and, as usual, far too little attention paid to the protection of the children in the organization’s care.  The first case in Philadelphia was filed yesterday.

In another leap forward when it come to educating the public on this issue, next week, finally, the secret archive files of the Catholic Church’s Los Angeles Archdiocese will be released to the public, as part of the Church’s historic settlement, five year ago, with hundreds of clergy child-sex-abuse survivors.  The Church paid quickly, but then litigated and stalled on the files, proving that these institutions are far more invested in retaining their secrets than they are in compensating their victims.

These issues have seeped into every part of our culture.  Yesterday, I was at a meeting where one of the ground rules that were laid down by the organizer was “ELMO,”an acronym allowing a participant to be able to say “Enough, let’s move on,” if the discussion got bogged down.  That used to be a cute acronym, reminding us of the lovable Sesame Street character.  Sadly, it is now a reminder that four victims now have come out, accusing Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash, of sexual abuse.  All of our sacred spaces have been defiled by the screed of child sex abuse, but survivors are taking back the space as their own, and demanding true justice from a society that has let them suffer in silence for decades.

The Final Two Frontiers When It Comes to Child Sex Abuse in America: Combatting Incest and Effecting Legal Reform

Two frontiers still remain in the fight against child sex abuse in America.  The first is the place that hosts even more abuse than our revered institutions do:  the home.  Incest is still a nearly-taboo word, and those victims have had the hardest time going public, in part because they are dependent on their abusers, and in part because they are so isolated.  But many, like “The 5 Browns,” a classical piano group composed of five siblings, have done so.

There is much to be done to improve our culture’s reporting of abuse, as well as our safety net for kids who are being abused.  The answer does not lie in expediencies that would only make the family stay together at a profound expense to the abused child.  The family institution, like the large institutions involved in child sex abuse, does not deserve abject deference when a child is being hurt.

The second frontier is the legal reform that is needed to stop the abuse, deter the institutions the first instinct of which is self-preservation, and punish the adults who perpetrate abuse or create the conditions for it.   Institutions are fighting against such reforms, with the Catholic bishops most recently driving the Pennsylvania Task Force off-track on the issue of statute-of-limitations reform.  The Task Force’s Report, which contains reforms that are no-brainers and should have been passed years ago, eschews statute-of-limitations “window” legislation that would create opportunities for victims whose cases would otherwise have ben barred by statutes of limitations to obtain justice. The contention of the bishops is that creating such a window is “unconstitutional.”  But under Pennsylvania law, that is a lie, and one that is perpetrated regularly, and only, by the bishops.   We will know that the era of institution-based child sex abuse is over when legislators listen to survivors, not bishops, on this one issue.

Right now, in Massachusetts, survivors, their supporters, and many organizations that are intent on the protection of children, are rightfully demanding that the state legislature finally enact proposed statute-of-limitations window legislation, which I discussed in this column. It is a simple procedural fix that grants the victims who have been shut out of court the ability to choose justice.  The vast majority of victims, in most states, have been shut down by a system that gives pedophiles a free pass when the statute of limitations expires on their victims’ claims.  Institutions that have covered up abuse prefer to keep their victims out of court, but legislators are finally coming to the victims’ rescue.  Massachusetts may well lead the way for the victims at the end of 2012, by enacting child-sex-abuse statute-of-limitations reform, which would only make sense, given that the avalanche of public information about the realities of child sex abuse started in Boston in 2002.

Similar legislation was passed in Hawaii in April, with victims already naming a bishop and non-Catholic perpetrators. In addition, measures to the same effect await passage in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.  If all goes as planned in the state legislature, then one year from now, I intend to write a column declaring 2013 the Year of Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims.

Marci A. HamiltonMarci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.
Print this page
  • Pingback: Home > Criminal Law > The Year in Review: 2012 Marks the Highest Watermark … – Justia Verdict | newzbuff.com

  • Cindy Dumas

    Great article, but Ms. Hamilton misses the very important point that the reason there are so many incest cases is not because the children don’t tell, but because when they do, they are silenced by family courts. Family courts do the same thing as all the other institutional cover-ups: they don’t do proper investigations, they conceal critical evidence, they don’t have fair hearings, they have total disregard for the children’s safety and welfare, and they empower predators. Ms. Hamilton, please write an article about the family court cover-up as there are more victims there than all the other cover-ups put together. Australia’s New Royal Commission is considering including it in its broad investigation of all institutional cover-ups. Research and more info at: http://www.SafeKidsInternational.org

    • Diya

      Cindy, I agree with you 100% and I have seen this first hand

  • http://www.facebook.com/malinda.sherwyn Malinda Sherwyn

    Next frontier is the Family Law and Dependency Court handing over children to their identified abusers. The dots need to be connected. Thousands of children are called liars and their protectors called liars and alienators in Family Law Court settings leaving molested children victims of incest in lives of misery by court order.

  • http://www.facebook.com/drupson Deanne Rose Upson

    Thank you for this excellent article on institutions that protect themselves and sexual predators rather than victims (both children and adults). There is a nationwide epidemic of child abuse and domestic violence abuse that judges silence and ignore for reasons having to do with racketeering of federal “Responsible Fatherhood” funds, “Father’s Rights” political support, outright discrimination, and lack of oversight of Family Courts by higher courts and judicial oversight committees. This problem goes well beyond the isolated problems reported: 58,000 abused children per year are placed with their abusers — overwhelmingly their abusive fathers or father figures — in Family Courts in the US. Often, these problems relate less to the gender of the parent than to the $ involved in the Family Court Cottage Industry. Reference the National Safe Child Coalition.

  • ajweberman
  • C.T.

    We need to reframe this topic of child abuse for those who believe being a child abuser is something you catch and get rid of like a common cold. This is not a pandemic or epidemic. An epidemic is something new that occurs in a given population at a high rate. A pandemic is an infectious disease that stretches across a human population. This is a true CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE and that is how it needs to be viewed. Viewing it like it is a disease or a new wide-spread outbreak is not the reality. The reality is, that this has been happening for countless generations and has been allowed to happen by those mentioned above. Instead of treating child abuse, we should move to eradicate it and step up our efforts to make those who condone, hide, or are involved with ALL types of child abuse to be held more accountable. Deanna, I enjoyed your post and I’m not taking a shot at you on mere vocabulary, but people who are not informed take this as a sickness that can be healed, when it is nothing more than abuse power against defenseless children. Our society just has way too lax of a view on this issue and much of it starts right at the top of our government with enacting laws. You may be aware of this, but check out the connections between the republicans and where they have their campaigns financed. Look at the Lichfield’s and Sembler’s backgrounds and how much money they have given to the republicans who endorse their institutions that are littered with abuse allegations and convictions. They are pretty much the founder’s of making millions off of mistreating and abusing children in “tough love” schools. It is not just republicans, its the people who abuse their power and authority. Sandusky, Sembler, Lichfield, Monsignor Garcia, etc… Child Abuse is everywhere and has been everywhere for a long time. We, myself included, as the un-informed American’s that our media allows us to be is just beginning to realize this, thanks to the author’s like the one who wrote this article and the accessibility of the internet. Thank you Hamilton, exposure is the first step.

 

Access this column at http://j.st/ZQpQ