All over the Orthodox world the talk at the Sabbath table, at the synagogue, even outside while walking the dog is not so much about the Asifa at Citifield but how The New York Times took on both a powerful lobby and a powerful District Attorney. In a series of articles which ran just over a week ago reporters Ray Rivera and Sharon Otterman, described the loathsome approach of the Orthodox community of Brooklyn, New York whose members protect child abusers from the authorities and shun those who report them. The topic is not new having been reported by Hella Winston in the Jewish Week and covered by the Forward over the last several years. However, because these newspapers tend to be viewed by a limited readership in the Jewish world and completely ignored by the ultra-Orthodox community the reports were easily be overlooked, even disregarded.
Cloistered Jewish communities would like to believe that pedophilia does not exist in their world and if it does, it is extremely rare. We know that this is a fallacious position. Abuse exists in every community. We also know that not only do certain rabbis refuse to report abusers but the therapists and social agencies that they work with are instructed not to follow the law of mandated reporters and they usually comply.
The argument most often used for not reporting abusers is the religious law known as Mesirah – reporting a Jew to non-Jewish authorities. This argument has been shown by several religious Jewish courts to be invalid when there is a threat to another person’s well-being. There are other reasons given though for not reporting. They include lashon hora – spreading false rumors and the reliance on rabbinic direction known as Daat Torah. The lashon hora argument states that by reporting someone without clear and direct evidence you taint him or her even before knowing if they are guilty. This line of reasoning is a misinterpretation no less than the Mesirah argument is. Without the proper investigation performed by the authorities empowered, experienced, and trained to do so, molesters are given free rein to continue their abusive ways. It is a well-researched fact that child predators find positions that gives them access to many children as either teachers or coaches. If not stopped these pedophiles will prey on many children, some reports say that the average pedophile can abuse as many as 50 or more children, almost never just one. Individuals in their 40’s have told me about the abuse they have received from teachers and rabbis who are still teaching or interacting with youngsters and still likely abusing children who are now in their early teens. Tainting these abusers is a most necessary step in preventing abuse from continuing.
In most Jewish religious communities rabbis are the natural leaders. Jewish leadership, however, is based on a tradition of discourse and disputation. A rabbi in Judaism no matter how highly revered is not given the status the Pope is among Christians. Rabbis are often seen as holy, well learned and worldly but they are not believed to be infallible. When rabbinic authority is used as the excuse not to report pedophiles it is based on the idea that certain rabbis have enough insight and awareness to be able to handle the situation correctly. The New York Times reports indicated that in some communities’ rabbis have not done the correct things in allowing survivors of abuse to be shunned and now the discourse has to begin in earnest within these communities. To be sure, there will be several instances where there will be very limited change for rabbis and their followers. That does not mean that an elected official is given license to ignore the needs of the children or that laws may be ignored.
Protecting innocent children and allowing those who have already been abused to bring their abusers to justice should be the goal of all of us. Mandated reporting laws that require anyone including clerics who work with children to report any suspicion of abuse to the proper authorities must be enforced aggressively. In the U.S. the laws opposed by the Catholic Church and Agudas Israel mandating finger printing of teachers or anyone who works with children should be a directive that all States require. Moreover, the Markey bill in New York State, which suspends the seven-year statute of limitations so that information about abusers can be reported whenever the abused individual is finally emotionally strong enough to do so, should be passed. Similar laws must be passed in other states where statutes of limitations exist. There is nothing more important than protecting our children and prosecuting those who bring them harm.
Michael J. Salamon is a psychologist, researcher and author of the book: Abuse in the Jewish Community