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How to fight silence on abuse? Be loud and lead!

Lip-service against primary abuse is not enough; we must take action to stop the secondary abuse of gaslighting victims

After reading a viral blog post by Steve Kubersky called “The Silence of the Rabbis,” a local rabbi asked me how I, as the father of a victim of clergy child sexual abuse, would want to be supported. If rabbis want to break the silence, what should they do?

I am addressing this post to rabbis, school principals, and other leaders with a simple message: It is up to you to stop secondary abuse.

I claim no professional expertise. I have a wealth of personal experience that I am glad to share if it helps victims. While my experience is informed by child sexual abuse, I have discovered in meeting with adult survivors, both male and female, that sadly, my findings are applicable in cases of adult rape, spousal abuse, agunahs, or any other case in which the community supports an abuser over a victim.

Secondary abuse is the act of re-traumatizing a victim through the response to their abuse. The child is abandoned “by the very adults most crucial to the child’s protection”. It has often been called “victim blaming.” Often this re-traumatization is caused by “institutional practices and values that place the needs of the organization above the needs of [victims]”.  It has also been called “Double Abuse.”

Whatever term you use, we have a unique version in our own Jewish communities. We spread lies about the victims (online and in shul), assume repentance (teshuvah) of the perpetrator, offer money or therapy for silence, kick supporters of victims out of schools and shuls, and deny a safe space for victims. We also offer open and unconditional support to abusers by interfering in police investigations, having wealthy donors pay lawyers to threaten victims, intimidate bloggers, and run PR campaigns for the abuser. Secondary abuse can also happen at the hands of police investigators who re-traumatize with bad interview practices or prosecutors who threaten victims into silence. Secondary abuse can even become criminal (including false police reports on victims, identity theft, assault, and vandalism), but is prosecuted even less than sexual abuse.

Jewish leaders perpetuate secondary abuse when they gaslight victims by claiming to support them in the abstract, but then working against them in reality. Or they tell their congregants there is no cover-up while actively engaging in a cover-up. Victims see this behavior and know they won’t be supported. Abusers see this behavior and know which shuls, schools, and camps will protect them should any victim (man, woman, or child) disclose abuse. This institutional failure to stop secondary abuse and gaslighting not only hurts today’s victims, but guarantees more victims tomorrow.

As Rabbi Yosef Blau notes, “Unfortunately, at present, the rabbinate does not play a positive role in preventing abuse.”…”The congregational rabbi and the head of the yeshiva should be setting the tone for the community”….”Communal attitudes are critical for determining whether the victims and their families will be supported.”

As Kubersky notes, we also decide to stay silent, a form of secondary abuse that, in our close knit communities, can be even more painful than words because the victim can’t get away from the abuser’s supporters. Many of us live, work, worship, and attend camp with the same small group of people.

Why are good people silent? They see their coreligionists taking sides and arguing, and they feel the moral high ground is in the center, staying out of it. One person told me that he didn’t know who to believe on an abuse case, but felt the argument just didn’t look good for the community and should end. Some say, “Well I just don’t know if I should believe the victim or the abuser, so I’ll just be quiet and wait to choose a side until somebody decides something.” They expect God to speak to them through a “bat kol” and relieve themselves of the moral quandary.

Everybody waits for somebody, while victim support comes from nobody.

Elie Wiesel’s famous quote speaks volumes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Or in the words of the rock group Rush, “You can choose a ready guide,/
In some celestial voice,/ If you choose not to decide/ You still have made a choice.”

Many Jewish leaders who would sign a Kol Koreh claiming to be against primary abuse, belie their support when they engage in secondary abuse, either through action or through silence. It akin to a confession absent repentance. Worse, victims may seek Rabbis who sign these documents, thinking they have found a safe spiritual guide, only to be subjected to even more secondary abuse.

Kubersky asks – how is it that despite decades of abuse, the victims of Stanley Rosenfeld “have not come forward publicly”, and yet the leaders who covered for him “remain prominent in the community”. Similar questions are asked about other abusers who have been unmasked in the #MeToo era, both in Jewish leadership and in the greater society.

Shira Berkovits writes in Tradition, “They [abusers] may be the very last people on would ever imagine harming another. This is not an accident; it is an image offenders work hard to cultivate.” Kubersky notes, “Predators embed themselves in our community.” Serial abusers spend years grooming a support network of powerful, influential, and often rich friends (Who else could pay their legal bills?) The victims don’t have such a network – They don’t spend years preparing to become victims. Berkovits notes, “children are far less articulate, possess fewer civil and social rights and are not nearly as powerful as their perpetrators.” It’s like a battle in which one nation has spent years building a military, and then invades a pacifist nation that doesn’t own a single shield.

It is commendable that three New York day schools are investigating past wrongs. Such is not always the case. One institution affected by the recent abuse disclosures did not launch a public investigation and did not reach out to the victims, but rather had their Rabbi give a sermon in which he warned about false sexual abuse allegations, and stated, “He who judges incorrectly destroys the world … destroys the world of innocent people and institutions whose names have been besmirched before the full story gets to be told.”  Note that he expresses concern for his own institution, but makes no statement of support for victims. This sermon was given in 2018, not 1970. The problem is real and it is happening today.

In New York, again in 2018, after a teacher was arrested for allegedly molesting a child, the principal told the news, “He’s an excellent teacher”…”He’s very well liked”…”He’s a wonderful, wonderful person”….”He’s going to be cleared”….”I really believe that.” He noted that the school has “never received a sexual harassment or abuse complaint against him”.

Somewhere in the flock of these Jewish “leaders,” a victim may be sitting on a secret, and now knows what will happen if he or she speaks.

So how do we make the world safer for victims to disclose abuse? Berkovits notes that, “in order to disclose, children must overcome tremendous pressure, and even threats from their abuser or other individuals.” In a future post, I will suggest 10 commandments for helping a victim and a victim’s family. In keeping with Jewish tradition, I’ll provide five negative and five positive.

For now, be aware that lip-service against primary abuse is insufficient without action to stop secondary abuse. Our leaders must denounce those who gaslight a victim by engaging in a cover-up while claiming there isn’t a cover-up because he or she isn’t really a victim. Silence is acceptance of the status quo, so make your support for victims loud and make it public!

As Rabbi Yosef Blau notes, “Above all, it is the rabbi who must send the message that covering up an incident of abuse is not protecting the community. Judaism, when understood properly, is about imitating God’s mercy on all and His concern for the weak and vulnerable. A major step is pursuing justice, and we will only bring ourselves to prevent further suffering when we see those victims brave enough to confront their abusers as heroes, rather than traitors. The layperson looks to his or her rabbi to set this tone. The message sent from the pulpit can determine if attitudes will change and if the scourge of abusers will stop.”

About the Author
Joel Avrunin is a leader in building technical sales teams, with a passion for technology, teambuilding, coaching, and helping people develop their careers. Experiencing the heartache of being a father to a victim of clergy child sex abuse has motivated him to be a vocal proponent of robust child safety and anti-grooming policies in our schools, houses of worship, and summer camps. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children, where he enjoys long runs down the Atlanta Beltline and hikes in the North Georgia mountains with his family.
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