Will This Be a Turning Point?

Is there a rabbinic role in reporting sex abuse? The answer clearly is yes. Their role is to tell those reporting it to them to go directly to the police and stop wasting time. It is not Mesirah (informing on a fellow Jew to an anti-Semitic government). It is not Lashon Hara (repeating gossip).

This seems to be the message of a conference on abuse taking place in Jerusalem. This is a not typical victims advocates conference with no legitimate representation or attendance by Charedim. There are plenty of Charedim there. As there are professionals trained to deal with sex abuse. From the Times of Israel:

Men, in their black hats and suits, and women in their wigs and hats, filled the venue’s meeting rooms and hallways, eager to speak with one another. These were rabbis, teachers, social workers, psychotherapists and concerned lay people who have come together.

And they have a lot to say on the subject.  All of which it seems to me goes against the dictates of those who advocate going to rabbis first before going to the police. As is rather well known those who advocate going to rabbis first are concerned about false allegations. Which could of course ruin someone’s life. But as is also well known the number of cases reported that are false are minuscule. Factoring that into the likelihood that there is a sex abuser prowling the neighborhood, it is a no brainer that the better part of caution is to report credible reports of abuse directly to the police.

It is also a well known fact that Rav Elyashiv, whom many considered the Gadol HaDor said exactly that. Credible accusations should be reported directly to the police. How do the rabbis who say that reports should first be vetted with them respond to that? They will tell you that the word ‘credible’ is paramount. And that those reporting such crimes are not qualified to decide what is or isn’t credible.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that Rav Elyashiv never qualified it that way. He was very clear about it.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz reports (in a twitter feed) that Rabbi Zecharia Greenwald and his father Ronny Greenwald  spoke to Rav Elyashiv about it. They verified that this is exactly what Rav Elyashiv said. And added nothing about vetting reports of abuse with rabbis first. I’m sure Rav Elyashiv was just as concerned about false accusations as the rabbis that require reporting abuse to them first. But Rav Elyashiv put no conditions upon it.

Rav Elyashiv is not the only one who feels that way. In that same twitter feed, Rabbi Horowitz reports that Rav Moshe Sternbuch clearly Paskined that an abuser must be reported to the police.

And yet there are leading rabbis who still believe that they must first be consulted. In my view, they should reconsider their position. Because the very lives of potential victims are at stake. What about false accusations? Yes, care should be taken to assure that an accusation is not frivolous… or the result of a bitter divorce where custody is an issue.

But other than that – go to the police and let them sort it out. In the event that an accusation is false, it will surely hurt the accused. But consider the hurt of a victim that did not have their abuse reported for fear that it may not be true. Isn’t the better part of wisdom to err on the side of the victim? Especially since the vast majority of reports of abuse are true? I hate injustice. And I hate false accusations. But I hate it more when children are abused and nothing is done for fear of false accusations.

I hope this conference signals a change in direction. Not that is should have taken this conference to do so. It is long overdue. But if it does change the way sex abuse is handled in Orthodoxy, I’ll take it. Better late than never. I await to see if there are any new pronouncements from religious institutions along these lines.  Of all of the problems facing the Orthodox Jewry in matters of sex abuse, I believe that reporting abuse directly to the police is the one that most directly affects the safety of our young. If that can be achieved it will surely be for the better.

I am also glad to see that other sex abuse issues are being addressed at that conference. For example there is recognition that many of the seminaries for women in Israel are woefully unprepared to deal it. As Rabbi Horowitz tweets about one prominent seminary head:

Wow. Question posed to Rabbi Kurland of Darkei Bina, “any parent applying to ur Sem ever ask you re boundary guidelines?” Answer, “No.”

There still seems to be a tremendous lack of information about sex abuse in the Frum world. Seminaries are still blindly trusted to protect their students. So that parents don’t ever think of asking a question like that. Now I’m sure that Darkei Bina is a fine seminary.  As far as I know, there has never been any accusation of abuse coming out of it. But the same was thought about Elimelech Meisels 4 seminaries until last summer when all hell broke loose there.

If that event taught us nothing at all – it should have at least woken us all up to the fact that nothing should be taken for granted. Parents cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to sending their children thousands of miles away from home for a year or two. Never assume anything when it comes to your child’s safety. Parents should make sure that boundaries are put in place for interactions between teachers and students. And that they are strictly enforced.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Moshe Heineman of Baltimore has advised seminary aged girls to stay in Baltimore for seminary.

I’m sure that many other issues of sex abuse are being discussed at that conference. I agree with Rabbi Yosef Blau who was quoted in the Times article:

“The public setting and the fact that so many mainstream Orthodox organizations and institutions are participating, and that politicians and Israel’s chief rabbi [David Lau] are speaking, is a statement that the Orthodox community accepts the fact that we have sexual abusers and spousal abusers,”

The fact that so many diverse sectors of Orthodoxy are attending this is valuable in the sense of coordinating a unified and broad based response. One where the kind networking can take place that will eliminate past tendencies for one community to simply rid itself of an abuser quietly so that he can show up in another and continue his abuse there.

The statistics are still bad. Here is what they are in Israel:

In 2012, the help centers for victims of sexual abuse in Israel received 40,000 calls, 64% of them having to do with abuse of minors. The vast majority (88%) of the victims of the abuse were female, and of the incidents involving children, 68% were cases of incest. That same year, Israel Police filed only 5,085 sex offense cases, 2,187 of which involved victims who were minors.

While the percentage of Orthodox Jews in this statistic is presumed to be small, it should be noted that it may not reflect the actual amount of abuse:

Going to local authorities is considered going against other Jews,” said Shoshannah Frydman, director of family violence services at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York.“Some rabbis are trying to get people to understand that reporting is not mesirah, but that it is rather pikuah nefesh, or saving a life.” Still, parents generally sweep things under the rug out of concern for their family’s reputation and the future marriage prospects of their other children.

It is very likely that parents whose children are abused refuse to report it for precisely that reason. They probably believe that they can handle it themselves. That with therapy the hurt will go away. And that the Shidduch (marriage) prospects will remain intact. At least for their other children and hopefully – with therapy for the child that was a victim.  Unfortunately we have seen the results of sweeping sex abuse under the rug some of which ended up in suicides of the abused. That must end.

Will this be a turning point? I don’t know. But I hope so.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.