We were living in the Dark Ages. This was an astonishing admission I heard not long ago from a prominent charedi posek. He now believes we should report suspicions of sex abuse directly to the police. If only all poskim would feel that way. That would be a start to solving a problem that is very likely under-reported in massive numbers. I mention this now in light of an article by Guila Benchimol in the Jewish Week. More about this later.
I first want to mention an eye opening movie I saw while vacationing this week. I generally don’t go to movies because frankly there are few made these days that are worth my time. But when on vacation, I allow myself the luxury. So I try and find movies that have been critically acclaimed. One such move is Spotlight. Although it contains a lot of profanity, it is a movie I highly recommend.
It is based on the true story about the huge amount of sex abuse in Boston by priests in the Catholic Church. Spotlight is the name of a team of the Boston Globe investigative reporters that, at the urging of its new Jewish editor, Marty Baron, discovered it and exposed it. That series of reports won the Pulitzer Prize and caused the highly regarded Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Francis Law to resign because of his proven attempts to cover it up.
Originally thought to be a relatively small number of abuse cases, the Spotlight team ended up with proof of abuse by 87 priests in the Boston on area. Ultimately 250 priests were accused of molesting minors. One priest allegedly molested 130 children over the course of his ministry. The scale of abuse victims in the Catholic Church was suspected to be in the thousands over several decades.
One of the interesting points made in this movie was how some of the priests viewed their own behavior. In one case, a priest actually thought that he did nothing wrong!
Even though this movie is about the Catholic Church, there are parallels in our own Orthodox Jewish community. Of course the numbers are not the same. But the percentages may very well be. Jews, no matter how religious, are not immune to deviant sexual impulses and the behavior that often follows . We know that until recently cover-ups have been the order of the day. In many cases it still is. As is denial by the perpetrators themselves. Sometimes they are lying. But sometimes, like that priest in Boston, they don’t believe that what they do is abuse. Which brings me to the article by Mrs. Benchimol.
What she describes in the Jewish community is what I saw in the movie Spotlight. Rabbinic leadership has a history of covering up abuse. Not because they are evil. But because they did not believe that prominent and apparently ethical people — rabbis in many cases that were model citizens in so many other ways — could ever do what they were accused of. Just like priests were once thought of thought of by the hierarchy of the Church as well as by the laity. These perpetrators then rise above suspicion. This is what Mrs. Benchimol calls cognitive dissonance.
In the minds of these religious leaders the only explanation was that the victim was the guilty party. In the Orthodox Jewish world, the accusers were the suspects and the victims were the accused! The accusers were just out to ‘get’ a prominent rabbi or lay leader because of some personal grudge or vendetta. Or because they were going OTD and wanted to besmirch Orthodoxy. Above all else, these rabbis believed (and in some case still believe) that Torah world needed to be protected from the ‘false’ image that sex abuse existed at all in any significant number, let alone that it is as common as we now know it to be.
Victims have felt demoralized by this attitude. And — as I have mentioned many times — they suffer lifelong depression to one degree or another because of it. In some cases, attempting suicide.
Mrs.Benchimol cites a study about delinquents. I agree with her that it parallels the circumstances with sex abusers:
In the 1950s, Gresham Sykes and David Matza named five strategies delinquents use to neutralize their crimes. Their framework sheds light on how the way we speak about sex crimes can neutralize and deflect blame from the perpetrators to the victims. The five techniques include denial of responsibility (it’s not the perpetrator’s fault), denial of injury (Gafni called his actions an “outrageous act of love”), denial of the victim (Rabbi Eric Siroka suggested he was having an affair with his victims), condemnation of the condemners (Gafni says his detractors are committing “sexual McCarthyism”), and appealing to higher loyalties (Gafni’s supporters explain his actions as part of his special energy used to counsel and teach).
I could not agree more with Mrs. Benchimol’s conclusion:
Once I understood the techniques, they leaped out at me from the news stories reporting the sexual crimes and abuses of power of our leaders, and I understood how we were failing their victims. These strategies dilute accountability and make it less likely that perpetrators will engage in the introspection necessary to address the problem. They ensure that perpetrators remain free of guilt. They focus our attention on the actions of individual perpetrators rather than on dysfunctional structures in our communities that allow sexual violence and abuse to occur and remain concealed for many years. One is the practice of allowing rabbis to investigate one another; another is not publicizing the reasons for their expulsions from their organizations.
Do we need our own Spotlight investigation before we do what’s necessary? Our rabbinic leaders would be wise to admit to themselves what that posek I spoke to admitted: We were living in the Dark Ages. I think Mrs. Benchimol got it right. Here are her suggestions with which I will conclude.
While rumors do not indicate outright criminality, they must be investigated. The cost of ignoring them is too high. But investigating allegations after they occur is too little too late. We must implement clear policies and action plans in our institutions to deal with problematic behaviors before they arise rather than rely on the current reactionary responses. We need to make definitions of prohibited behaviors explicit so that we can recognize when we need to blow the whistle or turn to the police. Victims need our assurance that it is safe for them to report crimes, that we will protect them and stand by their side. Our community needs to wake up to the reality of how predators operate, and not rationalize away their behavior. Otherwise, we are all responsible for contributing to the walls of silence around the sexual crimes of the powerful.