Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dropping the Ball on Child Sex Abuse

Last year on April 11, 2007 in what I believe was a ground breaking event, The Vaad HaRabbonim, the official Orthodox rabbinic association of Baltimore published a letter that faced head on the problem of child sexual molestation in the Torah world. This happened as a result of a major expose about a rabbi who sexually abused children for perhaps as long as 50 years. This was a rabbi who got away with it. He died almost 20 years ago - reputation intact.

At first there was outrage directed at the Baltimore Jewish Times for publishing an expose about a rabbi who died almost 20 years ago. Why was he now being besmirched - and his surviving family made to suffer?! Even in the unlikely event that it was true, they reasoned, what would now be accomplished with this expose?! They even tried to ban the paper!

But that changed when many victims came forward and described what had happened to them. These rabbis did a 180.

It was a ground breaking letter in several ways. This group of rabbis admitted that the problem not only exists, but that it has been mishandled. They stated that the number of victims is large. They described the modus operandi of abusers in tending to have jobs and careers that gives them access to multiple victims.

They told of how abusers operate in an environment of secrecy. And that abuse is facilitated by the Orthodox religious societal disbelief that things like sex abuse ever happen in the Torah world except in extremely rare cases. Accusations were therefore not treated with the seriousness that they should have been. Accused abusers were always given the benefit of the doubt. Victims were not easily believed and were often suspected of lying or imagining the abuse.

This letter now acknowledged that this approach was wrong and harmful. And that because of it victims were made to suffer life long problems so severe that in some cases it resulted in suicide. There was much more in that document which I believed turned a very big corner in the Torah world in dealing with child sexual abuse.

They correctly pointed out that sexual abusers have the same Halachic status as a Rodef. A Rodef is a pursuer where all means mat be used to bring him to justice. As such it was clearly stated and widely accepted by virtually all Poskim that one may immediately report cases of abuse to the authorities. As they further pointed out the authorities are the best equipped to deal with and investigate claims of abuse.

This truly was startling event for a group who generally does not want to air its dirty laundry in public …a group that tends to protect Kavod HaTorah as a high priority, which it is. This is a group that is tends to give an accused abuser the benefit of the doubt based on the Halachic principle of being Dan L’Kaf Z’chus - judging one’s fellow favorably.

In short this letter was a huge mea culpa. They realized that Kavod HaTorah demanded the exact opposite response …a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn from past behavior.

And that brings me to last Thursday’s article in the Baltimore Jewish Times. It’s almost as if this letter never existed. The Times reported about a meeting which took place under the auspices of Baltimore’s rabbinic community and sponsored by ‘Ohel’ of New York. It featured as a keynote speaker, Dr. David Pelcovitz, a world renowned expert on child sexual abuse, who happens to be an Orthodox Jew.

Although the meeting did re-enforce the notion that children need to be protected and taught how to deal with potential abusers should they encounter them, it totally ignored the all important aspect of reporting abuse to the authorities. One speaker even countered that notion entirely. It’s almost as though they changed their minds about it. The emphasis was on toughening up children so that they learn to report incidents of abuse to their parents and not blame themselves. Fair enough.

But.. did they forget what they said about a sex abuser being considered a Rodef? Did they forget they admitted not having expertise in dealing with these matters?

Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer, president of the Vaad apparently hosted the meeting. I’m sure he was well intentioned. But how in good conscience could he ignore a letter put out by his own organization less than a year ago? And why was the emphasis almost exclusively about toughening up children?

As was noted in the Times article:

The meeting still left some believing that the rabbis are the ultimate source of assistance and help when a child reports that they were sexually abused.

“Are rabbis specifically and properly trained to treat a child who has been sexually molested?”
asked one survivor who attended the meeting.

Attending the meeting was a clinical social worker who trains other clinicians to treat sex abuse victims. She observed:

“it’s not children who need to be toughened up, but, rather, parents and adults in the community who need to be educated and empowered to protect all children. Adults must identify and learn how to de-code the myriad of symptomatic `red flags’ that abused children manifest. … It is unreasonable and realistic to ever put that burden on a child.”

Also troubling was the usurpation of time by Rabbi Hopfer. I’m sure it was not intentional. But the keynote speaker, Dr. David Pelcovitz should have been given the maximum amount of time available to address the crowd. He was on a tight schedule and could not stay beyond the time he promised: Some 150 questions were fielded on index cards from the audience. Only a handful were answered.

But he did manage to make one very important point:

“Are false allegations possible?” “Of course they are. It’s truly rare, it’s the exception rather than the rule. No child wants to go through the pain of disclosure unless it’s real. The vast majority of times a child tells you this uncomfortable truth, they’re doing it because it is real. Take it very seriously. You are re-abusing them by not taking them seriously. You must validate a child’s reality, because the abuser distorts that reality.”

If anything came out of that meeting that was positive, it is that statement. No more being Dan L’Kaf Zchus to an accused abuser. Not that it can’t happen. It can and does. One ought to be very careful not to accuse people falsely. But false accusations are rare. Reports of abuse should be reported to the authorities discretely but immediately. Let us err on the side of the victim while exhorting the authorities to act with as much discretion as possible.

The meetiing ended with the most disappointing comment of the session. It was made by David Mandel, president of the sponsoring group Ohel:

Cases don’t need to be reported to outside authorities. He encouraged conversations between parents and the rabbi of a shul or a community.

What letter?!