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Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the Front battle to combat Child Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community OP-ED BY MARK MEYER APPEL

An interview with  Mark Meyer Appel, the founder of  The Voice of Justice

There is no doubt to anyone who has eyes to see and ears that hear that the myriad headlines that dominate the media reveal egregious corruption amongst trusted officials and the kind of moral turpitude that causes a collective cringe.
For decades, the seemingly at peace Orthodox Jewish world has had its share of shocking publicity when facts emerged about horrific child sexual abuse; perpetrated not by circumspect types in the outside world but by respected adult members of the community.
Raising one’s voice in outrage and indignation and thusly confronting the dense wall of silence that has been erected by the Orthodox Community in shielding perpetrators has been a most daunting venture. Given the community’s resistance to speaking openly about this terrifying phenomenon, those who would entertain the notion of crossing this invisible line are readily shunned; threatened and even ostracized.
Enter Mark Meyer Appel, founder of the Voice of Justice. Mr. Appel’s name has come to personify those victims of abuse whose voices have been drowned out in this continuing and painful conversation. Mr. Appel , however, cannot claim neophyte status in terms of acquiring knowledge on child sexual abuse.
Having started the organization “Voice of Justice” many years ago, New York City resident Mr. Appel has been an advocate for youth and children’s services and served on the mayor’s task force on mental health. Under the administrations of both Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, Mr. Appel also served on the board of directors of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation as a mayoral appointee
Moreover, Mr. Appel’s dedication also stretched to those children with special needs who had been previously ignored or neglected by the system that was created to serve them. In 1990, Mr. Appel worked with both city and state agencies to establish an early intervention program for special needs kids, kids at risk and learning disabled kids.
Mr. Appel also played a major role in finding jobs for marginalized kids, providing them with an appropriate education and offering them a substantial amount of financial support.
“When I worked with youth at risk during programs at my home, I discovered that many of them had been horribly abused, “ Mr. Appel ruefully recalled.
“The abuse had a major impact on their lives. It really hurt these kids and the family structure. When kids are abused they have tremendous difficulty trusting anyone anymore. Tragically, the leadership of the Orthodox world has not been in the forefront of helping them and that sense of abandonment triggers anger within these victims,” explained Mr. Appel
Having witnessed the emotional scars and trauma of child sexual abuse among those he worked with, Mr. Appel was driven from a source within himself to help expose this otherwise surreptitious phenomenon.
“Over the years, we became involved in major cases of those charged with child molestation. We spent many years attending court proceedings and trials to show our constant support. We want these victims and survivors to know that we have their backs,” said Mr. Appel.
For the last eight years, Mr. Appel has devoted the lion’s share of his time to conducting well organized lobbying efforts in Albany to call for a major reform in the statute of limitations. The proposed modification in the law would grant victims of child sexual abuse a sufficient amount of time to file criminal charges against the person or persons who perpetrated the heinous acts against them.
“It is our moral responsibility as Orthodox Jews, as upright citizens of this country, to make it our business to eliminate these predators, “ intoned Mr. Appel. “Because child sexual abuse gets swept under the proverbial rug in Orthodox circles , it very often comes out many years later. I worked with victims who were abused over 20 years ago, and who never pursued their cases out of fear and always remained mum about it. One day, without warning, a trigger will go off in their brain and all the nightmarish memories will surface and they will be reliving the abuse. Now, however, as adults they do want to redress their grievances in a court of law and that right should be afforded to them,” he said with palpable emotion reverberating in this voice.        
Known as the Child Victims Act (Bill # A2872A – in the assembly) and initiated by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, (D-Queens), the legislation, if passed, would eliminate these time constraints in criminal and civil cases of child sexual abuse.
At the beginning of May, Mr. Appel was joined by more than 130 Jewish leaders who have also signed the petition backing the bill. Among those rabbis and advocates are Jewish Community Watch, Kol v”oz, The Voice of Justice, Mageinu, United Support Network, Jewish Board of Advocates, and The Bridge Project.
New York’s archaic statute of limitations sharply limits the time victims have to bring charges against a molester. A victim must come forward within five years after the age of 18 to bring criminal or civil charges against their abuser or any agency or organization that should have reported the crime.
As was reported in the Daily News, New York City lags behind states like Georgia, Massachusetts, Florida and Utah, all of which in the past several years have passed bills that lengthened the time victims have to bring their cases to court.
Some victims are unable to come to grips with the abuse they endured until middle age or even later in life but certainly not before the age of 23. Furthermore, in religious communities, by limiting the right to sue and prosecute to the age of 23 has created a situation where victims of abuse may have lost a chance for closure to come forward with charges regarding the abuse suffered.
“Our biggest impediments in having this bill pass are the extensive influence of the Catholic church, the opposition of the Agudas Yisroel of America and the abject silence of Governor Cuomo, Senate GOP leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, “ explained Mr. Appel.
“What I can say is that the statement released to the media by Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudah (an organization that represents haredei Orthodox yeshivas and shuls), along with the backing of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and other yeshivas such as Chaim Berlin and Torah V’Daas only serves to further infuriate the victims of child sexual abuse because what they are essentially saying is that they don’t want to be held accountable for the abuse that took place on their premises. They don’t want to confess as to whether they knew or did not know that such abuse was happening, “ said Mr. Appel.
For its part, the Agudah has said the bill would open up institutions to “ancient claims and capricious litigation,” as they had written in a 2009 statement it had issued in conjunction with the haredi schools network Torah Umesorah.
Speaking to the JTA, Agudah director of public affairs and regular newspaper columnist Rabbi Avi Shafran declared, “We do not oppose extending or even eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for cases of abuse. Our concern is simply protecting the economic viability of Jewish schools. Yeshivas operate on shoestring budgets.”
Because of his stalwart efforts to challenge the status quo, Mr. Appel has been branded anti-haredi by his detractors, but he says, “I am not at war with Agudath Israel. They have many wonderful programs including Daf Yomi and I very much respect Rabbi Dovid Zweibel. He is an exceptionally decent person. But having said this, I must also say that the Agudah and Torah Mesorah should have been in the forefront of this campaign to have this legislation passed.”
Recalling that he attended an event about three years ago that was operated by “Sacred Lives” ( a group dedicated to helping abuse victims), Mr. Appel said that many Jewish summer camp directors were present including Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, zt’l of Camp Sternberg for girls in upstate New York and Rabbi Zweibel of the Agudah. He had also donated tens of thousands of dollars to ensure it success as he has done throughout his career working with abused children. “These rabbonim have to agree unanimously that abuse will no longer be tolerated. The good news is that there are many who are very supportive of abuse victims,” said Mr. Appel.
He adds that such culpability on the part of the Agudah and the yeshivas where the abuse took place would have done much in the way of promoting emotional and mental healing of the victims. “It would have graphically illustrated the fact that the yeshiva took responsibility for the reprehensible acts that took place under their bailiwick,” said Mr. Appel.
He added that because victims have been filing abuse charges in other states, it is beyond shocking that not one yeshiva in California has been shut down. “The Catholic Archdiocese was sued and there was $1 billion in claims,” he said.
Mr. Appel says that the likelihood of yeshivos falling into an insolvent state of affairs if lawsuits from victims were brought against them were slim to none because “yeshivas have good insurance policies that prevent lawsuits and judges are obligated to sign off on a lawsuit in order to proceed.”
He said that the only way that a case against a yeshiva can have legal legs to stand on is if it can be proven in a court of law that teachers and administrators were involved in covering up the abuse. He added that there is a possibility that this precise point that has placed the Agudah and its attendant yeshivas in a defensive posture, but many variables remain to be seen.
Ariella Haviv

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