In the last few days, I have been asked repeatedly by survivors of childhood sexual abuse to comment publicly about the kerfuffle caused by the many letters written to the court in support of a now sentenced pedophile and confirmed abuser. The letters given to the sentencing judge asking for leniency, compassion and some alluding and even describing a sense of remorse on the part of the abuser have resulted in a major outcry from victims, advocates and their supporters. Victims often feel betrayed – and not just when they learn that well known individuals seem to support an abuser. The sense of betrayal is with good reason. In order to heal the one overriding need victims have is validation. A community cannot validate a survivor of abuse if survivors see abusers receiving support and calls for mercy from this very same community while they are marginalized by a society they perceive as insensitive to the traumas they endured. For those who have missed the events that I am referring to a brief overview is available at this JTA news site: http://www.jta.org/2014/04/03/news-opinion/united-states/y-u-rabbinical-student-sentenced-to-13-years-in-abuse-case, and here: http://frumfollies.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/pelcovitz-and-leading-orthodox-rabbis-line-up-behind-sex-offender-evan-zauder/
I cannot and will not address this particular case because I have no way of knowing what the letter writers, mostly rabbis but other professionals as well, were thinking when they wrote the letters. However, I think this situation is fertile grounds for a teachable moment as these situations occur with more frequency than the public realizes.
Most often, though not exclusively, family members call on the court for leniency. Clerics, Rabbis too are often asked for letters of reference, recommendation, and support. Most frequently, the requests and the letters are simply pro forma. These letters are done as a formality and have little meaning, carry little weight and are perfunctory. The letters are just an extra bit of data that simply suggests but does not confirm that the letter writer and the subject of the letter are familiar with one another. The letters are often boilerplate and those receiving these recommendations are fully aware of this. For a letter from a cleric in support of an individual regarding someone about to be sentenced for a major crime to be taken seriously a clear indication of a strong relationship should be indicated in the body of the document. Most of the letters in this particular case were not of this intimate a nature. The letter writers must surely have known this. If this were true, why would they have bothered to write the letters? What could possibly have motivated them knowing that there would be limited value added for the offender?
Forensic specialists, especially those who do court ordered evaluations almost never rely exclusively on brief, simple face-to-face interviews. They garner information about the subject they are doing their clinical evaluations on from several sources including objective tests and other individuals involved. In this case, we do not know if a forensics report was performed for the court but letters written by friends and relatives attesting to the positive personality and allegedly limited psychopathology of the abuser seem to be included in the correspondence given to the court. Based on this one would have to assume that the writers actually had some clear insight into this individual. Other than family members, it appears that the other letter writers were familiar with the offender though in limited manner. If this were true, why would these individuals have written the letters? Would people actually put their reputations on the line for someone they knew only peripherally? What benefit is accrued to the letter writer?
Thus far, there has been one response and one apology from the letter writers. The tenor of the response suggests the need for compassion for the offender. This is a position I can understand and under certain circumstances even empathize with. Offenders are often themselves victims. I understand that and hope that the offender gets justice. That is precisely the issue here, and from the perspective of the victims, however, there is little balance in this situation. Even if the letter writers are advocates for victims of abuse, an imbalance is overlooked when writing such a letter of support for an offender. This disparity overlooks the victims’ pain both qualitative and quantitative. How many years a person should sit in jail is not a question of compassion so much as a question of justice. How many years should a victim of abuse have to deal with the pain they have been caused? Caring people can be led astray by caring in the heat of the moment. Compassion for the offender who is about to be sentenced is understandable only if the victims receive the measure of compassion they so deserve.
There is a saying that has been making the rounds recently: People tend to make rules for others and exceptions for themselves. We try to make sense of a world that can as easily make sense as be completely random. In fact, randomness is much more likely. It is so much easier to respond to the immediate emotional tug at ones heart than to rationally assess a complex series of circumstances. So if asked, a letter might be written impulsively and emotionally. After the fact, it is easy to rationalize and justify why the letter was written. That seems to be the case here. The judge sentenced according to legal guidelines. The letters had no impact on that process. What the writers did not perceive was the pain they caused victims. Would they have written the letters if they knew the victims in this case? Would they have written letters if their relatives, friends, neighbors were victims? Would they have appeared in court at sentencing to admonish the judge and press the court for the most stringent sentence possible? We all know the answers. However, the real answer is human nature – People tend to make rules for others and exceptions for themselves.