Rabbis Misunderstand Sexual Abuse

Over the last few weeks there have been several displays of limited awareness by some rabbinic leaders regarding the subject of childhood sexual abuse. Rabbi Michael Broyde, in what might have been another wise reasonable article on the topic (http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/six-steps-for-dealing-with-abuse-scandals/), erred on several points. His most notable was the implication that in the case of abuse “false accusations are sometimes raised.”

False accusations are rarely raised! In fact, virtually every study reported in Israel, America and elsewhere, documented by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, indicate that false accusations of childhood sexual abuse occur in only about two percent of reported cases.

There is also a tonal error on the rabbi’s part. One could read portions of his essay as suggesting that abusers be afforded the same treatment as those they abuse. Rabbi Broyde is also a lawyer, a professor of law at a prestigious law school so his sense of fairness and balance is understandable. But, his awareness of the reality of sexual abusers seems narrow.

Broyde implied that the media has a limited role, “while newspapers serve a valuable purpose of pressing for an initial investigation, they are almost never the right channel to conduct such an investigation… in an era of anonymous Internet accusations, we have to maintain a presumption of innocence in the face of an accusation”

In response to that I refer him to a USA today piece about Larry Nassar (https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/nation-now/2018/01/25/its-why-we-do-how-journalism-stopped-larry-nassar/109819500/), the doctor to elite gymnasts who abused as many as 250 young people. Rachel Denhollander, was the first to file an official complaint against Nassar. If not for a newspapers’ dogged investigation of her case it is likely that Nassar would still be in his exam room sexually abusing young athletes.

It took at least two years until a complete investigation of Nassar revealed the depth of his perversion and the vast number of young people he harmed.

Sometimes it takes even longer. In 2008 an 18-year-old who goes by the name Maria reported that she was raped at knife point. Initially she was not believed (https://www.propublica.org/article/false-rape-accusations-an-unbelievable-story). The disbelief created so much conflict for her that she recanted her story. It was not until years later that solid police work uncovered a pattern of similar rapes more than 1000 miles from where Maria was attacked, and her rapist was arrested. On the point of statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse I also find Broyde’s position to be disingenuous.

Another misstep came from Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman of Migdal Ohr. Two weeks ago Rabbi Grossman testified on behalf of Malka Leifer, accused of 74 charges of sexually abusing young girls in a school that she ran in Australia. Grossman requested from the court that she be allowed to be under house arrest with his supervision rather than stay in jail. Leifer is finally being detained to determine if she should be extradited to face charges back in Melbourne and jail is where she should remain.

This is not the first time Rabbi Grossman was involved on the wrong side of a case of sexual abuse. Not that long ago He pleaded for leniency for Motti Elon (https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4439094,00.html). Just a few days after testifying for her, perhaps under pressure from the Migdal Ohr Board, Rabbi Grossman wrote “I notified the courts that I am completely withdrawing my involvement in the case of Malka Leifer, and my recommendation that she be placed under house arrest with my supervision.” Grossman purports to have sensitivity “to the pain and plight of children and adults who are abused” and I am sure that he does but his method of displaying that sympathy is questionable.

Rabbis have several issues to deal with and concomitant layers of conflict in addition to an ethical problem when confronted by cases of abuse in the community. They are put in a position of mixed and divided loyalties. Who in fact do they represent? Do they represent the victim, the abuser, the community?

Rabbis are often asked to provide counsel to victims and act as advocates on their behalf. Can they perform that role if they question the fact that abuse even occurred? What if the abuser also is part of the same community? Should rabbis decide if a suspected abuser is to be be reported to the authorities or not? The law in most jurisdictions require that any reasonable cause to suspect abuse must get reported to the authorities so that well trained investigators, not rabbis, can do their job without hinderance. And then there is the need for the community to gain guidance on how to handle not just the abuser but the victims as well. We have seen far too many instances where communities have turned against victims to support abusers even in situations where there was incontrovertible evidence that abuse occurred.

Three levels of responsibility and overlapping loyalties that rabbis find themselves saddled with. This problem is exacerbated by not having a licensing board and code of professional conduct. It should not be such a great dilemma though. There is Talmudic precedent for dealing with abusive rabbis. The Talmud in Moed Katan, 17a tells of a rabbi who had a bad reputation, because as the Talmudic interpreters indicate, he was sexually inappropriate. He was excommunicated and not allowed back to the community. It is a simple direct and highly relevant position that some of our current religious leaders might want to restudy before making questionable pronouncements.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York. He is the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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