There are secrets, and there are secrets — and then there are the secrets that are ripped open and brutally exposed. The bandages were ripped off a 20-year secret in 2012 with the publication of Amos Kamil’s “Prep School Predators” in the New York Times Magazine. Kamil wrote about the sexual abuse of students by several well-respected teachers at the prestigious Horace Mann School in Manhattan.
His article created momentum that encouraged other victims to come forward with tales of their own. And, boy did they.
It was not just at Horace Mann, and it was not just in secular New York City prep schools, but it soon became revealed that a religious high school had its own hidden secrets. At the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, known as MTA, a buzz developed, first in whispers, then in online chat groups, and culminated in a class-action lawsuit.
New York attorney Kevin Mulhearn persuaded several dozen alumni of MTA that they had a viable claim for the abuses they said they experienced 30 years earlier at the hands of two once-respected rabbis: George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon. The rabbis were accused of acting inappropriately with students on school grounds in the 1980s, and the administration of using its authority to slough off any challenges.
According to the lawsuit, multiple students said Gordon pressured them to allow him to “inspect their genitalia,” and Finkelstein was reported to have gotten overly aggressive with students, often engaging children under his charge in “wrestling matches” that went beyond tactical moves of the sport.
Some families quietly settled with Yeshiva University (YU) and signed confidentiality agreements, which kept the stories quiet until “Prep School Predators” was published five years ago.
A force was unleashed. Mulhearn recruited former students, now middle-aged adults, promising that he could get YU to compensate them for their trauma, despite the expiration of New York’s five-year statute of limitations to file a complaint about sexual abuse crimes. For minors, that means it does not begin until those who were sexually abused turn 18, and then expires when they turn 23.
But Judge John Koeltl, who was presiding over the YU claim filed by Mulhearn in 2013, said that the plaintiffs could not get past the statute of limitations. As a result, YU was, and remains, in the clear from a standpoint of civil liability.
A movement that has been gaining legislative steam is to liberalize the statute of limitations. The New York state legislature considered a step in that direction last week after Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte (District 42) sponsored a bill which would allow victims to bring civil lawsuits until their 50th birthday and criminal cases until their 28th birthday. Additionally, the bill sought to open a one-year window to revive old cases and treat private and public institutions the same way involving sexual abuse. The bill overwhelmingly passed the State Assembly, 129 to 7.
“The ability to bring a civil lawsuit for being abused as a child is not about money, as there is no money in the world that you could pay someone to be sexually abused,” said Jay Goldberg of West Orange. “It’s about closure, it’s about being reimbursed, at a minimum, for the cost of long-term care, and this bill is about being the only recourse.” Goldberg is a survivor of sexual abuse at MTA and an advocate for reforming the statute of limitations.
Although the bill passed the State legislature by a similarly large margin, it was killed in the New York State Senate before it could be voted on. An added frustration for victims of sexual abuse were the organizations that lobbied the State Senate to drop the bill, which included the Boy Scouts of America, the Catholic church, and several Jewish institutions, including the Agudath Israel of America and YU.
The groups opposed to reform have publicly stated that they have confronted their past and paid millions to victims, but Goldberg disagrees, at least with respect to YU. Goldberg criticized YU and the Catholic church for lobbying against changes to the law. YU “works hand-in-hand to sweep the abuse under the table, and the politicians don’t want to alienate the powerful so they refuse to bring it to a vote,” he said.
While Goldberg understands the hesitancy to “air dirty laundry,” what disturbs him are the lengths that many Jewish institutions will go to bury the past. Goldberg has reached out to several rabbis asking how an institution that bills itself as religious can say it has “no obligation to those they acknowledge were hurt by its rabbis based upon a secular time limit?”
“The hope, or at least mine, is not about being able to make millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars, my hope is to have a chance, even a remote one, where I have my chance in court, which sadly probably will never come.”
Yet Goldberg is not a pessimist. In the past five years, he says, the victims have achieved something that they had not in the preceding three decades. That is, the recognition that they matter, and that they have suffered in a way that is inexcusable.
“That it was brought up at all gives me hope; I feel a special pain and scars that only those who have been abused can recognize,” said Goldberg. “We feel pain in a different way than those who were never scarred.”