Orthodox communities all over the world continue to struggle with the wave of child sexual abuse accusations coming forth. While there are certainly challenges with any close-knit community dealing with the fallout from public accusations, one would think that once the courts have ruled, the matter would be settled. Yet in the case of Rabbi Mordechai Elon, we see plenty of recalcitrance in spite of (and perhaps in contempt of) a court verdict.
While Rabbi Elon did not receive a custodial sentence, there are many cases of Jewish white-collar criminals serving sentences in prisons, to the extent that kosher food is provided and a halachic guide for Jewish prisoners has been published. We seem to have come to grips with one category of crimes committed by Jews, but not another.
Without minimising the severity of sex abuse crimes compared to white-collar crimes, comparing our attitudes to these two categories is a useful thought experiment that can help us understand why people behave in a certain way. More importantly, it can help drill down to how we must change to reach a more appropriate approach to child sexual abuse in our communities.
Here are four distinct yet overlapping themes that can explain some of the prevalent attitudes.
1. Separation of the Tablets.
The Ten Commandments were given as two tablets – one with laws between man and God, and the other with laws between man and man. Our Rabbis explain that the reason the tablets were equal-sized is to teach us that we must give equal weight to each category of commandments. But sadly, we don’t, and there are all too many examples of people who behave in a very pious manner toward God, but have no ethics when it comes to business. This hypocritical attitude makes it easier for people who commit crimes against others to retain their standing in the community.
2. Jews as complainants against other Jews.
The more common white-collar crimes are fraud committed against the government or theft/embezzlement. But the complainants in child sex abuse cases are most often our own. Despite proclamations from many Rabbis that the prohibition of mesirah does not apply in these cases, there remains a cultural reluctance and discomfort when one Jew accuses another of a crime. What is often overlook is that reporting is made even harder by the power imbalance in cases of sexual abuse – implicit in any accusation is a challenge to the authority and standing of the accused.
3. Shattering of stereotypes.
It’s relatively easy to mitigate the risk of a white-collar criminal in the community. Firstly, people in their own community may not be a target for their criminal activities. Secondly, we can choose not to do business with them. But the crime of child sexual abuse is qualitatively so much greater as it involves such a serious breach of trust, and the victims do not have the choice to stay or walk away. It is often perpetrated by someone in a position of authority – like a parent or a teacher – relative to an innocent and vulnerable victim.
In an Orthodox community setting, where such people are highly regarded, the crime of abuse shatters the stereotype like nothing else. As mentioned, our culture is able to rationalise the pious and charitable congregant who has ripped off the government for millions of dollars – he can just be ‘a good person who does bad things’. But the notion that a teacher – who may have inspired so many students during a long career – simultaneously carries a dark side that betrays and takes advantage of the very students who trust him casts into doubt all the good he has ever done.
4. The risks of false accusations.
The justice system moves very slowly, and is unable to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle which feeds our thirst for immediate information and immediate results and immediate judgements about the people around us. You can blame the justice system, or you can blame the media and the blogosphere, but that won’t change anything.
This means that in between an accusation and a verdict, a community is in limbo. We’ve not debated how to treat – in a community context –people who have been accused, have been accused but not yet charged, have been charged and are awaiting trial, do not end up being charged despite accusations, or have had charges either dismissed or found not guilty at trial (which is not the same as being declared ‘innocent’). The stains of these remain within a community, and affect not just the accused but their family and friends. Clichés like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ are true in the courts, but not in the community.
The community damage that the accusation and judicial process itself does (irrespective of the outcome) is a further impediment to the reporting of these crimes.
The purpose of articulating these themes is not to make excuses; it’s to help Orthodox communities understand for themselves the path from where we are now to where we ought to be – leading the way in child protection. Overcoming these barriers requires leadership, open and challenging debate (including with the wider community), and change. It is not an easy path, but it is a necessary one.