Have we finally hit a real watershed moment? Is it possible that at this point most of us have endured enough pain to finally accept the fact that child sexual abuse is a fact and happens in all communities including the many varied denominations of Judaism? Are we sufficiently exhausted by the attempts to continually sweep the problems under the rug and let it see the disinfecting light of day? I am hearing some promising reports, like a leader of a prominent yeshiva asking to meet with survivors of sexual abuse and many rabbis admitting that perhaps they have not been as aware of the situation as they should have been. But have things truly evolved?
Ten years ago I was attacked for writing a book about abuse in the Jewish community. The attacks have continued intermittently since. Even in the last few days they persist. I am not deterred by these critics as they have little insight into the pain survivors of abuse endure and they have more interest in protecting their institutions. I, on occasion, have thought that perhaps with every new revelation that a representative of one of the largest Hareidi organizations who made a habit of sending me critical emails might just have a pang of consciousness and write, if not an apology, perhaps a thank you for my persistence. Not likely to occur at any point soon.
Still so many people have been reacting in the last few weeks to the Walder revelations of abuse. I am encouraged by some of these reactions. The sense of culpability, shame even sorrow that a man could hurt so many people even while he was being afforded constant accolades can lead to a need to examine and repent and suggest techniques to make sure that it does not happen again.
Some of the suggestions for preventing abuse are currently coming from individuals who are not trained and have no insight into actual situations likely to lead to abuse. Proposing that a child is not allowed to be picked up and driven home by a family that they are babysitting for is an indication that the individual recommending this has little insight into just how abusers operate. Others have suggested not telling children why they have thrown out Walder’s books. Similarly mandating that male therapists are not allowed to treat female patients is also an incongruous proposition and has no basis in corralling abusers.
Most sexual abuse happens within families. The next most likely abusers are friends of the family and adults that children interact with regularly. Abusers are people who insinuate themselves as caretakers and concerned adults into the family of the child they intend to abuse. It appears that Walder was of this type. He exploited people by gaining children’s very personal stories, using them to gain their trust and grooming and manipulating them and their families to trust him – to the point where he could abuse. He also presented himself as a therapist and not the person he truly was. Walder, like most abusers knew how to gain trust and then betray it.
What we need to do is insist that unlicensed, untrained individual who are called therapists within their community be shunned. Individuals who need psychotherapy should be referred only to licensed individuals who are well trained and experienced. Licensed therapists follow a code of ethics and are extremely unlikely to risk losing their license by betraying that code.
We need to stop expecting rabbis who are not trained to deal with this particular scourge to be helpful. Rabbis have every right to refer individuals to therapists that they trust but they indicate a complete misunderstanding of therapy when they restrict their followers to gender specific therapists as an excuse to prevent abuse. To a degree of well beyond 500 percent we are significantly more likely to find abusers at shul than in a therapist’s office.
What we should most importantly do is to be open and truthful with our children. We need to educate ourselves and our children about abusers. We need to tell them the truth at their level of awareness and ability. We need to train them to protect themselves and how to be open and truthful with their parents. And we need to accept that there are abusers everywhere and educate ourselves to recognize the signs sooner.