By: Benjamin Koslowe | Editorials  | 

Does the Child Victims Act Over-Punish Yeshiva University?

With the recent passing of the Child Victims Act, Yeshiva University once again stands to defend itself against accusations of mishandling sexual abuse reports for decades. Though federal judges previously dismissed the $380 million lawsuit filed against Yeshiva University, the new law vastly extends the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse, retroactively imposing potential civil liability on individuals and institutions for wrongdoings that may have taken place many years ago. Dozens of former Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA) students are petitioning anew for the case, and will likely proceed with a lawsuit against Yeshiva University in the near future.

The Child Victims Act, which seeks to provide some degree of restitution and justice for victims whose lives may have been permanently damaged by abuse, is clearly well-intentioned. “I hope you can find a slight sense of peace and a slight sense of vindication that you did not endure this pain without reason,” Governor Andrew Cuomo explained at the law’s signing ceremony last month. “This is society’s way of saying we are sorry,” he said.

The alleged crimes that were perpetrated against MTA high school students from the 1960s through the 1990s were certainly heinous acts. Yeshiva University, like other institutions, has acknowledged the unfortunate reality that it did not take sufficient steps to protect victims when suspicions first arose decades ago. “The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for,” President Richard Joel said after The Forward’s 2012 exposé. He expressed, on behalf of Yeshiva University, his “deepest, most profound apology.” Indeed, it ought to be obvious to everyone that victims deserve vindication and unqualified sympathy.

Less obvious, though, are the most ethical parameters of justice, or the ideal means by which the system of law will, to the best of its ability, right past wrongs.

As is evident by the years-long struggle over the attempted lawsuit, the sought-after restitution — specifically, legally forcing Yeshiva University to pay victims millions in compensation decades after the events took place — is still an unresolved issue, and the question of its merits is still a relevant one.

Even if Yeshiva University was once an institution guilty of permitting the occurrence of sexual abuse, its administration and its policies have changed.

Though Yeshiva University is sharing no information about how it intends to deal with the resurfaced lawsuit, legal precedent suggests that the university will attempt to negotiate with the defendants. But enforcing even a fraction of the astronomically high $380 million payment order could cripple Yeshiva University, an institution which already suffers from barely-stable finances.

This type of punishment is ethically questionable. Even if one grants that institutional liability is legally and morally just (a proposition that is not obvious), whence do institutions derive legal culpability if not from individuals who belong to those institutions? A legitimate case can perhaps be made for punishing an institution in the present moment for its formal, or even implicit, crime-enabling policies. In the inevitable upcoming lawsuit against Yeshiva University, however, most of the culprits are deceased, living outside of American jurisdiction or no longer in positions to defend themselves.

Yeshiva University has also adapted to modern societal sensibilities regarding sexual abuse. Yeshiva University has in some measure righted past wrongs by spending money, time and effort to conduct an internal investigation and take steps to prevent similar mishandling in the future. Even before The Forward’s exposé, Yeshiva University instituted mandatory sexual harassment training, avenues for students to confidentially report abuse and many educational programs to promote sexual abuse awareness among Yeshiva University students, faculty, administrators and alumni. Counseling has been made available to alleged victims. It seems somewhat unfair for Yeshiva University, like other organizations in similar circumstances, to find its own internal investigation used against the institution in future litigation, effectively punishing Yeshiva University after the fact for its own attempts at taking corrective action.

Even if Yeshiva University was once an institution guilty of permitting the occurrence of sexual abuse, its administration and its policies have changed.

It seems, then, that a successful suit against Yeshiva University would not punish direct abusers or indirect enablers, nor even call to task ongoing harmful policies. This then raises an important question: Who exactly stands to pay for the crimes of decades past?

A major financial blow to Yeshiva University will harm students, who stand to suffer from further academic and extracurricular budget cuts. Departments will likely persist in hiring freezes, while employed faculty may not see an end to petrified salaries for years to come.

There may be a legitimate place for the Child Victims Act … However, in the case at hand, suing Yeshiva University will ultimately cause more harm than good by punishing the wrong parties.

As was mentioned above, the victims of sexual abuse deserve unqualified sympathy. Many of these former students loved Yeshiva University, and they were cruelly neglected in return. Every feeling person associated with Yeshiva University should care deeply about the need to right the abuse that these individuals suffered.

There may be a legitimate place for the Child Victims Act. Perhaps there are some institutions that should stand to pay for sexual abuse from decades past. Additionally, the law may serve the positive purpose of disincentivizing institutions from allowing sexual abuse to take place. However, in the case at hand, suing Yeshiva University will ultimately cause more harm than good by punishing the wrong parties.

If punishment is due, perhaps the victims might consider pursuing individual alleged abusers rather than the institution of Yeshiva University. Indeed, the mere existence of the Child Victims Acts does not in itself force victims to pursue lawsuits against institutions, even if the law may now permit it.

If the desired goal is deterrence, current Yeshiva University administrators and offices have made clear their openness to working together with victims to brainstorm how to best prevent sexual abuse going forward. Certainly this would be a positive and productive response to derive from the horrors that took place.

At this point, the Child Victims Act has passed. Society in general, and Yeshiva University in particular, must continue to effectively pursue efforts to help past victims of sexual abuse. Surely, this can be done without imposing irreparable financial devastation on the institution.