I have worked with victims of sexual abuse for close to 30 years. The Catholic church was in large part an introduction to my understanding of just how pervasive child sexual abuse can be especially within a closed insular community that protects its hierarchy and has a history of worshiping religious titles above morality and decency. Many of the patients I initially saw were survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated against them by priests and pastors. I did have Jewish patients who were sexually abused as children by teachers, coaches, rabbis and bar mitzvah tutors, but I, in a somewhat naïve fashion, guess that I wanted to believe that was a very uncommon pathology within my religion. I was resistant to the idea even though I had heard stories of abuse from my peers as a teen. That all changed when I wrote a brief article on the topic of child sexual abuse that hinted at a religious summer camp which came to have a reputation for overlooking the fact that abuse was quite common there. Within 24 hours of the article’s publication, I received close to 100 texts and emails from men who had over the course of several years been abused as campers at that camp.
I was motivated to find out more, so I followed up by doing research and writing several more pieces. Ultimately, I authored a book on the topic of abuse in the Jewish community. What followed was praise from survivors of abuse and threats from others, mostly ultra-Orthodox leaders, who in a veiled tone set about to tell me that I was not only mistaken but ill would befall me and my family for casting such negative aspersions on other Jews. Since then, there have been many case reports, some judicial findings and even jailing of offenders and sexual abusers in the Jewish world, that made it to the media. I retained a bit of optimism, hopeful that the broadcasting of what was going on might help turn the tide of denial among our religious leaders and I fantasized that I might even receive an apology from those in the Haredi world who threatened me. It was not to be. In fact, in the ultra-Orthodox world denial remained de rigueur, almost a religiously mandated and legally binding approach to avoiding dealing with the reality.
In the last few months there have been complaints of sexual abuse against two high profile Haredi individuals, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the leader of ZAKA and Chaim Walder, well known author, educator and untrained therapist. I may sound cynical but there is nothing new in these reports and very little indication that change in the form of a statement acknowledging the problem and actively addressing it will soon come. There is no outcry, no evidence that there will be a true reckoning with just how widespread sexual abuse is and that the necessary steps will be taken to tackle it. Just look at how the Walder case has unfolded. It was only because some reporters were able to document reports from three of his victims and a book seller in Borough Park, New York removed Walder’s books from the store that there has been any response to him. The rabbis who vetted and promoted him for all the years have said nothing. He and the others who have been reported to be abusers slink from public life, but repercussions and liability seems to evade them.
I am continuing to do my research on this form of abuse. I have approached several rabbis in different denominations of orthodoxy for their blessing. Those affiliated with the Modern Orthodox/Dati Leumi world have given overt support, encouraging me to continue and even lending their names and resources to my efforts. In the ultra-Orthodox world, I have often been shown the door by some, but others are quick to give me their blessings but refuse to align with me publicly. They have said that if they did so they would lose their followers.
I am not shocked by this anymore. And I am certainly not retreating. Too many youngsters, both girls and boys are still being sexually abused by individuals who justify their horrific behaviors and always blame their victims. In fact, some of the youngsters I see professionally still believe that it is a right of passage to be abused by a dorm counselor or rebbe. In perhaps my naïve way I am hopeful that the more attention that is brought to this the more likely things could change. It took several decades but that seems to be what is happening in the Church! Hopefully soon it will happen for us.