Abuse survivors: Markey bill our chance at justice
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By Bart Jones
April 21, 2009 / Newsday.com
Some survivors of childhood sexual abuse call it their first and perhaps only chance at justice.
A bill sponsored by Assemb. Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth) would suspend the seven-year statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases for a year. That means those who allege abuse -- including three who told their stories to Newsday -- could file civil lawsuits no matter how long ago the abuse took place.
The bill would open the door to lawsuits against all kinds of clergy, coaches, teachers, doctors, Scout leaders, baby-sitters, therapists, camp counselors and members of victims' own families. Incest accounts for by far the largest category of child sex abuse cases -- 40 percent to 50 percent, experts say.
Markey and supporters of the bill plan a press conference and rally today in Albany.
Roman Catholic leaders say the legislation could bankrupt the church in New York and unfairly targets the church because public institutions including schools are protected by a required 90-day notice of claim for lawsuits that the bill does not eliminate. The bill's proponents contend it would affect both public and private sectors.
Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said that while "one act of sex abuse is too many," the diocese believes going to court would "revictimize the victims" by "reopening some of the tragic periods of their lives. ... Even if you award someone, money that is not going to undo what happened." But some victims don't see it that way. They say money isn't the main issue. They want the truth known.
Here are the stories of three people who say they are child sex abuse survivors.
* * * Joel Engelman, 23, says he was an 8-year-old boy at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Brooklyn when the then-principal began to invite him into his office. Engelman alleges in a lawsuit that Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, then of the United Talmudical Academy on Throop Street, sexually assaulted and abused him. Engelman said the rabbi would sit him on his lap and fondle him.
Engelman said that after suppressing memories of the abuse for years, he went to school officials last year and demanded Reichman be removed from his current teaching post at another nearby UTA. School officials agreed to do so, and removed the rabbi for about two months, Engelman said in his complaint. But they put him back days after Engelman turned 23 and potential child sex abuse allegations passed the statute of limitations, he said.
Soon after, Engelman filed a lawsuit against the school and Reichman, claiming that the school violated its commitment to keep Reichman out of the school. The case is pending.
Reichman's attorney, Jacob Laufer, said the rabbi "vehemently denies" the allegations of abuse. The rabbi "is a highly regarded educator within his community," Laufer said. He predicted the rabbi would be "completely vindicated in the courts."
In his lawsuit, Engelman, and his attorney, Eliot Pasik of Cedarhurst, state that other "credible" allegations of abuse by Reichman have surfaced. No lawsuits have been filed, however, partly because of the statute of limitations, Pasik said.
Engelman called the Markey bill his best hope to see some justice in the case. He said he no longer is a practicing Hasidic Jew.
"In the community, going to the police has been taboo," Engelman said. Markey's bill, he added, would help break the wall of silence.
* * * Kathryn, 48, who grew up in Nassau County and now lives outside Boston, said she was sexually molested by her oldest brother for years. She favors the Markey bill, though "filing a lawsuit is a very personal and painful decision" and she is not certain what she will do.
Kathryn agreed to discuss her life through contact with the Manhattan-based New York Coalition to Protect Children. The Markey bill, she said, "is about the opportunity for people to have their voice heard and for perpetrators to be exposed and protect future victims."
Experts say incest victims often have the hardest time coming forward because the abuse involves their own families. Still, Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and an expert on the issue of child sexual abuse, said she expects a significant number to file lawsuits if the Markey bill passes.
Kathryn said it took years before she could talk about her abuse. It still haunts her.
"There was a hole in me," she said. "There was a slow, insidious hemorrhage. No bandage was available because it took me years to find the source of the bleeding and the courage to look at the ugly wound."
* * * David McGuire, 42, was an altar boy at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in West Hempstead in the 1970s when he said the Rev. Eugene Vollmer began to "groom" him. Before long, McGuire alleges, Vollmer was sexually abusing him, sharing pornography in his rectory room and engaging in sex acts with the boy during alcohol-infused encounters.
Vollmer's priestly faculties were suspended by Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in March 2002 after "credible" accusations of sex abuse surfaced against him, Dolan said. Pope John Paul II removed Vollmer from the priesthood on June 16, 2004, Dolan said. The diocese does not know where Vollmer is today since he is no longer under its jurisdiction.
Others who say they were victimized by Vollmer have identified him as "Priest D" in a 2003 Suffolk County grand jury report on sex abuse in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Vollmer acknowledged to diocesan officials that he had molested at least 12 victims, according to the report, which characterized him as a "serial child molester."
McGuire said he wants the Markey bill passed because it would force the church to open its personnel records, so that the public could view how the church responded to the allegations of abuse.
"The church wants to make it about the money. The big thing for me is I want the truth to come out, and I need that as a survivor," said McGuire, now a psychotherapist in Culver City, Calif.
He added that he would file a lawsuit against Vollmer if the bill passes. "If we don't pass this bill, we are allowing hundreds of predators to remain out there on the streets" without the public knowing of their histories of abuse.