Monday, March 24, 2008

Killing the Messenger

One of the problems in dealing with matters of sexual misconduct by members of our community is tendency to defend ourselves against negative implications about ourselves rather than to see justice done. This is true no matter what slice of Judaism one identifies with. We all want to protect our image.

This was typified by the response of the members of a Charedi community in Melbourne Australia. They were angry.

The media had reported on a sex abuse story in a very Charedi girls school. There have been several reports in both the secular and Jewish media about a Charedi headmistress who had molested some of her students. The most recent one was published in The Forward.

The response was anger. Not so much at the headmistress who molestated some of her students, but at the media for making the community look bad. Here is the response by one Charedi man interviewed for the Forward article:

“We are innocent people being made to look guilty” “We have been besmirched by the actions of one woman”

As if to say that sexual molestation is so rare in the Torah world that it never happens. And this is the only time it ever did. We in the Torah world should not be vilified because of one case.

Of course we know that isn’t true. Every large Torah community in large metropolitan areas has its share of child molesters as we have all painfully have become aware of in recent years.

The first concern should be with the victims and the students of the school. I believe that was handled appropriately:

Since the allegations emerged, the school has engaged a number of psychologists, including experts in sexual abuse, to counsel the school’s 250 students, as well their parents, former students and staff. It also flew in an expert from Israel to counsel the students.

But after that - instead of being indignant about how the media portrays them, they should be concerned about prosecuting the perpetrator. That is not what happened. She was able to leave town without prosecution. She even absconded with money she borrowed from people who trusted her to the tune of $100,000 dollars. Instead of making her actions known to the public, it was hushed up. And now she and the money are gone.

How can something like this happen? Perhaps the following will help explain:

In his Sabbath sermon on March 8, Adass Chief Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck said Leifer should not be considered guilty because no charges have been brought against her. Beck, a Vishnitzer Hasidic rabbi whose brother is head of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta in America, also warned his flock not to engage in malicious gossip.

Even though this sermon took place after the perpetrator left town it reflects an over-all attitude in dealing with molesters that can be summed up with one word: Shhhhhhh!

Of course there were no charges. And there will be no charges.

In an effort to spare this woman malicious gossip, she was able to skip town with other people’s money.

And there will be no prosecution. This is because of an attitude expressed here:

“I doubt that there can be a police case because, knowing our families, no girl or parent will report these allegations,” Abelesz, the former Adass secretary, said. “The girls are modest and shy and would only be further hurt by any publicity.”

I understand that people who see themselves as dedicating every fiber of their body to serving God - get upset when something like this happens and makes their community look bad. But it happened. And it does look bad. It should be acknowledged as a problem - one that is universal and one to which the Charedi world is not immune.

I also understand the reluctance to prosecute. It's hard. But instead of ‘killing’ the messenger and not prosecuting for fear of embrrasment - they ought to be seeking justice. Because if this one got away and is not prosecuted… then it’s open season.