Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Stigma of Sex Abuse

The problem just won’t go away. Nor should it. Sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community is alive and well. Thriving – in fact. At least that's the message I get from media reports like this one in the New York Times.

I have no answers to this problem. Nor do I blame all those who have expressed outrage at the rabbinic leaders for their reticence and reluctance to act in effective an forceful ways.

I too have questioned this reluctance. In some cases, there has been such bad judgment that I wonder how some of these rabbis can sleep at night! But one should not paint all the rabbinic leadership with the same evil broad brush - even those who have been reluctant to act strongly and forcefully. For the most part they do mean well. But – as I’ve said many times - we know where a road paved with good intentions can sometimes lead.

The truth is that I’m not sure that their reluctance to act strongly and forcefully in certain circumstances is always wrong - even if the greater good is served by acting. Ethical considerations can dictate non action.

This is the case with Assemblyman Dov Hikind. He has been served with a subpoena this week, demanding that he surrender his files on sex abuse victims. I support his refusal to do so. This is not so say that I endorse everything he ever did. I have been highly critical of some of his statements and actions in the past. But I do think his ethics in this situation are correct - even though the greater good might be served by opposing him.

Here are some excerpts from the New York Times that describe the circumstances:

(Hikind) says he has collected more than 1,000 complaints and the names of 60 accused sexual predators.

He has kept those stories under lock and key in his Brooklyn office, he says, because the people who said they were victims had sworn him to secrecy, fearful of becoming outcasts in a community where perceived troublemakers risk losing employment, housing and even marriage prospects.

But a prominent lawyer representing a half dozen former yeshiva students who say in a civil lawsuit that they were sexually abused by a teacher in Borough Park, Brooklyn, had Mr. Hikind served with a subpoena this week, demanding that he surrender those files.

Mr. Hikind has refused. “I will go to jail for 10 years first,” he said on Wednesday.

“I’ve been shocked and overwhelmed at the magnitude of the problem,” said Mr. Hikind, an Orthodox Jew and a Democrat who represents the predominantly Orthodox community of Borough Park.

The victims have come to (Hikind’s) office in a steady stream to tell their stories, he said. “Abusive teachers and rabbis in the schools,” he said. “Pedophiles on the streets. Incest in the home.”

“There is no way in the world, when people have come to me and spilled their hearts out to me, and shared the most intimate and private things with me, hoping I will do something to address the larger, overall issue, that
I would ever betray their trust,” he said.

It seems that every time I read about this issue - it gets more shocking. Whose fault is it that information about sex abuse is not forthcoming - so that prosecutors can put molestors behind bars?

The fault lies not with Assemblyman Hikind. In fact it’s nobody’s fault. The stigma of being sexually abused is great. Victims are just too afraid to reveal it. As Assemblyman Hikind put it, 99 percent would not go to the police under any circumstances. The fear that the Orthodox community will cast them into an unfavorable light is real. And it will last a long time.

Who - after all - wants to get involved with a Shiddach (a potential marriage partner) who was sexually abused as a child? They are seen as damaged goods! - psychologically unfit for a happy marriage. The abuse follows and affects them throughout their lives - and it will affect their marital lives - if left untreated.

So victims keep quiet. They try and overcome it by themselves - but rarely do. Usually the opposite happens and things only get worse. And... they start dating without ever revealing they were sexually abused.

I understand their pain and misery. Life has dealt them an unfair blow. I can't begin to fathom what they must go through! I understand their need to hide this information. But it is just plain wrong.

The dating public has a right to know that a potential spouse has been abused. Keeping that a secret is almost a guarantee that there will be relationship problems! It is also Gneivas Daas. Victims must reveal that they have been abused and should seek professional counseling immediately! If they don’t and keep things hidden they will suffer for a long time – probably doing irreparable harm to themselves and their future spouses.

There is another reason to reveal that they are victims of abuse. It is so they can testify against their attackers.

The problem is too great to be swept under the rug anymore. And it is the victims and their families understandibly doing the sweeping in this case. Assemblyman Hikind cannot be blamed for keeping their confidence and trust. It would be unethical and wrong to betray it! He should not be pressured to release his files even though it would benefit other victims who have come forward and are now seeking justice - and even though it would help put the abusers behind bars, where they belong.

It is hard to be critical of a victim of abuse. And as much as I sympathize with their desire to keep their experiences quiet, their silence needs to end. The victims must somehow be persuaded to summon up the courage to come out in the open and testify against their attackers. It’s the right thing to do.

It has been the victim's very reticence to speak up that enables the abuser to continue! Exposing them and testifying against them is the best way to prevent the continued abuse in the Orthodox world. Sex abuse seems to be at near epidemic proportions (A thousand complaints?! - 60 accused sexual predators?!)

By comming forward they will no longer fear exposure via seeking professional help. And it will enable the victims to get the psychological counseling they need.