Breaking Down The Culture Of Silence

When Henry David Thoreau wrote that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” he could not have been talking about men who, as young boys, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of supposedly trustworthy adults. Their song, I think, has been robbed from them. And their desperation is heart wrenching.

Just last Sunday, the magazine section of The New York Times ran a terribly disturbing cover story on a sordid history of just that kind of abuse at the Horace Mann School, one of New York’s most prestigious prep schools. The article described what amounted to a virtually institutionalized culture of predatory sexual behavior, in which a number of popular male teachers and administrators, who were widely rumored to be behaving in a grossly inappropriate manner towards their male students, were allowed to perpetrate their depraved behaviors while the students themselves felt constrained to remain silent.

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little surprised at my own reaction. Why do I allow myself to be surprised by this kind of story? After all, by now we should hardly be expected to even feign surprise. Think about it. Think of what we’ve learned about the tragic cover-up by the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in response to a distressingly high rate of pedophilia among its priests. Think of what we’ve learned about Jerry Sandusky, and how the Penn State athletic program- and the university itself- were willing to countenance the sordid abuse of numerous boys so as not to kill off the goose that laid the golden eggs and brought millions of dollars in alumni money into the university.

And, of course, lest you think that I am turning a blind eye to the Jewish community, think about what is going on these days in certain sectors of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, where there are fundraisers for the alleged perpetrators of abuse, little if any sympathy for their victims, and vigorous efforts made to keep the secular authorities from prosecuting the accused.

What is common in all of these instances is the culture of silence. In an egregious case of literally and figuratively adding insult to injury, those who are the victims are made to feel that they will suffer if they go public with their accusations. The institution must be preserved at all cost– the prep school, the university, its athletic program, the church- all are more important than the soul of the child.

One needn’t be a religious or spiritual person to be repulsed and utterly dismayed by all of this. Any healthy, normal adult, particularly one who has raised children and understands the imbalance of power that exists between them and the adult world, has to be horrified by such a coarse and hurtful exploitation of that situation. The imbalance doesn’t stop even when the little child becomes an adolescent, or a young adult. Teens are notoriously vulnerable to authority figures whom they trust, and college-aged students, both men and women, are hardly exempt from similar kinds of abuse.

But having said that, the religious person in me feels personally pained and violated by these crimes.

Jewish communities that shelter pedophiles are engaging in the worst kind of Chillul Hashem– they are profaning the name of God to Jew and Gentile alike. Their inexcusable behavior essentially defames all of us whose lives are enriched and ennobled by Torah and its values. My friends who are Catholic priests- fine, noble men- have found it increasingly difficult to overcome the veil of distrust that the Church itself has created around the priesthood. It is not what they bargained for when they gave their lives over the service of God. What happened at Penn State has driven yet another stake into the heart of collegiate sports in this country. Recruiting violations, students who play for a year or two, never graduate and turn pro, and are accepted to even the finest universities only to produce programs that will generate revenue for the universities… and we fuel it all by watching those football and basketball games and creating our brackets for March Madness. We are all complicit, aren’t we? And those who were hurt the worst at Penn State were young boys… not college athletes.

When I was coming of age in this country, in the volatile college environment of the late 60’s and 70’s of the last century, it was a given that questioning authority was an unqualified good thing. I’m sure we carried it to an extreme, but as I look back on it now, I am convinced that what we believed and practiced was healthy. Many of those who were in positions of authority then did not have our best interests- or our country’s- at heart.

We need, once again, to empower our children to have a healthy distrust of authority- at least enough to be able to scream for help when the situation warrants. Failure to do so makes us as complicit in their victimization as the perpetrators themselves. And if the particular variety of victimization is sexual abuse, we dare not allow that to be the case. Silence is simply not an option, not for us, who can empower the potential victims, and certainly not for the children. We owe them much more…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.