At first, it was straightforward and terrible.
Accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, credible and horrifying, against people who once seemed unassailable either because of their position and power or because of their charm, kept rolling in.
Some were not surprising, although the viciousness of the behavior revealed are shocking. Rumors about Harvey Weinstein, for example, had been around for years; even casual gossip-column readers knew that there was some dirt somewhere, although no one knew that it was an actual slime-filled Augean stable of filth.
Some were more surprising — to those of us who know no one in those circles, Charlie Rose? John Hockenberry? Who knew? But what we read is both entirely believable and shocking in its coarse dismissiveness.
Then there are the more complicated or at least less clear cases. Leonard Lopate? Jonathan Schwartz? Garrison Keillor? Those public radio father figures whose voices and music have been the backgrounds of so many of our lives? And whose misdeeds haven’t been detailed, and who deny them? What about them?
For some time now, it seems that every other day or so some icon has been toppled, clay feet breaking into smithereens, showering us with slivers of glass. Some of those slivers go straight to our hearts.
As a Jewish newspaper, we have been pretty inured from decisions about what to print in this last round of stories, in this cultural moment. We don’t have to tell those stories. Everyone else does. By the time they get to us, they’re entirely part of the public consciousness.
And then it hits home, and then we have to decide what to do.
How do we balance the right to privacy with the understanding that abuse never is okay? With the need to validate the victim?
How do we assess the evidence? How do we weigh information about the abuser’s pattern, number of victims, length of time since the abuse happened? How do we factor cultural in understandings from earlier, different times?
What do we do when we hear only one side of a story because the abuser is dead or suffering from dementia? Do we revise our memories?
And what about memory itself? How do we understand memories of abuse, filtered as it necessarily is through layers of pain and time?
All of these questions took on even more urgency when we learned, a few weeks ago, that there is a suspected abuser in our community, and it became even more urgent to me when I found out that it was someone whom I know and respect.
What is our responsibility when the suspected abuser, as a youngish man, is accused of having groped much younger men, boys really, who were in his professional care?
What about when there are just a few accusations, and those accusations are both very credible and more than 25 years old?
What do we do?
First we make sure that there are no recent allegations. That would change everything, because then the suspected abuser would pose a real danger to real people right now. Then we would have no choice but to print the story, with the name, immediately, with all the information we could find.
But if all the allegations are old? Do we still print the name? Do we understand that the harm he is accused of having done is so great that we are acting immorally by protecting him? Or do we decide that if the world has waited 25 years for the information, it can wait a bit longer, until we are absolutely sure?
I do not pretend to know the answer. I do know that if the allegations are wrong, we will have been party to causing great harm ourselves. I do know that it’s easy to throw around the words “witch hunt,” but think about Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” No, we’re not hanging anyone, but are we going mad with the power to name and destroy?
And where does power figure here? Does the alleged abuser, who easily can cover up, tell some story, seize on new victims and then cast them off when he choses, have the same amount of accountability — no more and no less — than someone without that power?
And then there are the Jewish questions. How does our very real, very basic mandate to protect the vulnerable among us square with our need to guard against lashon hara — bad speech, slander, defamation, using the truth as a weapon?
And what about teshuva? Repentance? Is repentance real only if it’s public? If you’ve done something bad — not criminal, but morally terrible — a long time ago, and then stopped, and lived with the knowledge that you might be found out, unmasked, cast out, and it’s colored your life, then what? What is the community’s obligation then?
Really, what is the community’s obligation?
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter, the founder of Sha’ar Communities, has been thinking about this obligation, about the balance between the need to divulge information that will save or protect someone else, and the need not to divulge it under any other circumstance, because of each person’s right to privacy and through privacy to dignity.
She quotes, among other sources, the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, who said that information may be disclosed only when seven qualifications are met. The last of those qualifications is that “We must not cause more damage to the accused by sharing than we could have caused by testifying about their behavior in court.”
That leads directly to questions about growth and change, as well as questions about statutes of limitations. And about ritual humiliation.
We are publishing the story because it’s entirely public now, and not to run it would be dishonest, or at the very least ostrich-like, and that would help no one. But it is not without sadness.
Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?