Ethan Eisen

Change this law to protect victims of child abuse

To state the obvious, blame for committing acts of abuse rests primarily with the perpetrator, as well as with those who knowingly enable and support the perpetrator in committing the heinous acts. Understandably, because we did not have a role in the perpetration of the abuse, we also do not see ourselves as part of the solution to prevent such abuse in the future. But what if I told you that laws that we have on the books here in Israel, laws designed to help protect minors against abuse, actually served to protect and enable Mr. Walder? And what if changing these laws to closer match those found in the United States might have prevented years of abuse by Mr. Walder? As I argue in this post, it is my view that in addition to vocally supporting victims of abuse, we can play a crucial role in preventing abuse by advocating for a change in the law here in Israel.

It took me a little while to appreciate the magnitude of the Haaretz story alleging that Mr. Walder had sexually abused a number of minors. As a clinical psychologist, I am painfully aware of the challenges faced by victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), and over the years, I have become more alert to the prevalence of CSA in our communities. I have co-authored academic articles on the topic of CSA, and I have served as an ad-hoc reviewer for leading academic journals in the field.

I think I was slow to understand the importance of the emerging story because I had never heard of Chaim Walder, and I knew nothing about his outsized influence in the frum, and specifically chareidi world.  In the days following the breaking news, it started to become clear to me that there was something different about this report, something that seemed to resonate deeply in our communities.

In my curiosity, I listened to a podcast interview focusing on the Walder case with an advocate with many years of experience dedicated to child protection and abuse prevention.  Naturally, the question about Mr. Walder’s books came up: should they be removed from home and school bookshelves? The advocate offered a thoughtful response, and added that for her specifically, the question lacked relevance.  She explained that through her professional work, she had been made aware of credible allegations a long time ago when a number of people had disclosed to her or her agency that they were victims of Mr. Walder; as a result, she had long since removed his books from her shelves.  The podcast host seemed to take this comment in stride and continued the interview.  But I was shocked.  Wasn’t this advocate a mandated reporter?  How is it possible that this was not reported to social services or the police? As a licensed clinical psychologist trained in Maryland, I would have lost my license had I not reported this information to the authorities.

I literally started yelling at my phone when a friend sent me a video of a representative from Lo Tishtok, an Israeli organization established to support victims of child abuse, that was recorded over the past few days.  He said the same thing as the advocate on the podcast: they had received multiple credible allegations over six years ago, within weeks of founding their organization, but because the clients did not want to report the abuse, they could not bring the accusations to the authorities.  Knowledge of serial abuse by Mr. Walder had been known for YEARS (!!!!) by the mental health professionals whose life mission is to help victims, and yet…and yet.

I am not sure of the right word to describe my state of mind when I heard this.  Dismayed, confused, outraged, demoralized, frustrated, nauseous—each of these words captures some part of my reaction.  So I reached out to a number of friends and colleagues to understand what I had just heard.  What I learned is still something I’m having trouble believing is true.  As it relates to this case, Israeli law is different from American law, and that as currently written these advocates had acted in accordance with the legal and ethical standards in Israel.

What is this difference?

Let’s say a 22-year-old reports to her therapist that she was the victim of child abuse when she was 14, and she identifies the alleged perpetrator.  She adds that she does not want to go to the police or social services; she is only interested in receiving therapeutic services from the therapist.  The complication of such a case is that because the accuser is no longer a child, there is no allegation of current child abuse. So how is the therapist meant to handle this situation?  Is the therapist obligated to act as a mandated reporter and disclose this credible allegation of child abuse, albeit from years ago, to the authorities; or is the therapist supposed to honor the ethical and legal requirements to maintain the client’s privilege of confidentiality?

As a therapist in Maryland, I would be required by law to report this disclosure to the authorities, even if there is no current allegation of specific children at risk.  State authorities are also instructed to prioritize these reports if the alleged perpetrator presently has access to children.

As a therapist in Israel, however, the law appears to be the opposite.  Since this case does not include allegations of current abuse of a specific child, the mandated reporter laws are not triggered, and as such, I would not be allowed to disclose this information without the consent of the client.  Even if the alleged perpetrator continues to have access to children, without a credible accusation or report of current abuse, the therapist is meant to prioritize the client’s confidentiality and cannot pass the information along to the authorities.

Advocates in support of victims of child abuse have three main objectives.  First, we want to support people who have been victims of child abuse, and help them restore a life of meaning and fulfillment.  Second, we want to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes and sins.  Finally, we want to create conditions that will prevent child abuse from happening in the future.  It is necessary to articulate these objectives clearly because any action or changes made by members of the community must be evaluated against these goals—would my actions help advance these objectives, or alternatively, lead to a regression away from these goals.  Of course, many times these three objectives work together; other times, however, steps to reach one objective may move away from one or both of the other objectives, and it requires careful deliberation to examine the benefits and costs.

Let’s walk through the current law’s impact based on the three principles of advocacy.

1) Does it help the current victim?

Support of the current victim is the strongest reason to keep the law as it is.  There are victims of abuse who would benefit from professional services, and would be willing to seek out those services, but do not want to risk being dragged into long legal or public proceedings.  If she knows that she holds the privilege of confidentiality, and that she is in control over whether this information will be passed along, she may be more likely to seek support.  From this perspective, the law is Israel as currently written makes sense, and expanding the mandated reporting laws would move in the wrong direction.

2) Does it hold perpetrators accountable?

One could argue that the more people make initial disclosures to therapists, the more likely it is that they will eventually issue a formal complaint against their abusers.  But I think life experience points in the oppositive direction.  Limiting the mandating reporting laws works to the advantage of the perpetrators, who use intimidation of their victims as a tool to deter them from disclosing and reporting.  In the Walder case, there is credible reporting that he paid ongoing hush-money to victims, which means that he had the means to intimidate and extort these victims if they would consider going public.  Leaving the decision up to the victim whether or not to report credible allegations means that the more intimidating the abuser is, the less likely he will get caught. As currently written, the law makes accountability for perpetrators less likely, and based on this perspective, expanding the mandated reporter laws makes sense.

3) Does it prevent future abuse

According to reports, Mr. Walder began abusing several of his victims within the past several years, after the time that his activity was known to multiple organizations, rabbis, and advocates.  This is unconscionable.  Regrettable as it may be, a first instance of abuse may not be preventable.  But to have a system set up that multiple victims can provide credible reports, multiple agencies can have awareness of the abuse, and we still have no mechanism to prevent the perpetrator from continuing is unacceptable.  The agencies were hamstrung by the law and were unable to provide reports to authorities, which allowed for the abuse to continue for years.  From this perspective, it is clear that we need to expand the mandated reporting laws.

In this instance, the three underlying principles of advocacy do not align; as it relates to expanding the mandated reporter laws, the necessity to support current victims may be at odds with the interest to hold perpetrators accountable and prevent future abuse.  So which should take priority?

In my view, by expanding the mandated reporting laws we do the most good, and there are straightforward steps to mitigate the possible harm to current victims.  As a therapist, during any intake, I discuss the limits of confidentiality with the client.  If the mandated reporter laws are expanded, the therapist can inform the client, and then remind the client as time goes on, that the client can choose whether or not to provide information regarding the perpetrator.  In such a way, the client retains the autonomy to decide whether or not to trigger the mandated reporter rule.  If, however, she chooses to disclose the perpetrator, the other principles are honored and we can more likely hold the perpetrator accountable and prevent future abuse.

Some people wonder why victims wait so long to disclose, or may not disclose at all.  The answers to this question can vary, but in its simplest form, the incentive structure is in favor of not reporting.  A victim who has been targeted for abuse fears that the abuser is still powerful, and may assume that just as she could not depend on anyone to protect her in the past, no one will be able to protect her if she discloses her abuse.  She has survived the torture from the abuser, which is bad enough, but by coming forward she anticipates having to relive that all over again.  If it becomes public, she fears what it may mean for her future, what sort of gossip may be spread about her, and how it will impact her family in the community.  In other words, the victims’ hesitancy to disclose the abuse is not her failure, it is the failure of our society to provide a trusting framework to protect her if she does disclose.

Raising our voices in support of victims is important.  Teaching our children principles of personal safety is important.  But how do these efforts go together with laws that we have seen can allow for abuse to continue for years and years?  It is bone-chilling to consider how the system made by those who care deeply for child welfare may have contributed to maintaining silence about known accusers.  I think it is time to acknowledge that our laws, made with our best intentions, let these children down when they needed support the most.

Change this law and protect more children.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life."
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