Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dealing with Sex Abusers – Then and Now

Many people are very quick to condemn rabbinic leaders who many years ago advocated silence about religious sex abusers. Does that mean they were evil people? No. On the contrary they were highly responsible people. They were completely invested in the welfare of Klal Yisroel. As such when someone came and accused a prominent religious figure of molesting them they were not necessarily believed.

How - they would ask - how is it possible that a religious Jew would do something like this? So they hushed up the story. They probably believed that either it was completely false – a misunderstood innocent gesture - or in the unlikely event that it was true, more harm than good would come to the Torah world from exposing it than from keeping it quiet.

I know that mindset. I had it. I never believed the rumors about people I knew. Some of them were prominent and successful people that were well integrated into the Jewish community. It took me a while to come around about these individuals.

Back then - with this mindset - rabbinic leaders ‘handled it’ themselves. They would tell the abuser to stay away from children under the threat of going to the police. Problem solved, they thought. There was little if any monitoring of their activities.

In some cases when there was more credible evidence they just kicked a sex abuser out of the community. Perhaps they would ‘follow’ his migration to another religious community and report his abuse history to its leaders. To say the least that was not a solution. Those reports were not widely broadcast – even though rumors did leak out.

Often these people are quite charming. They move into a town and very quickly ingratiate themselves to the community. When people start hearing rumors of past sex abuse, very few believe them.

That was then. I can understand their behavior then. I know they meant well and as I said I know that mindset all too well.

But now we know differently. There is no excuse for hushing things up. We know that sex abuse is a lot more common than we ever thought. We know that it happens in the Torah world too. We know that the vast majority of reports by children about abuse are credible. We also are aware that a mental disorder like pedophilia is a sickness that can affect anyone - no matter how religious they appear in public. And we know that pedophiles cannot seem to control their urges and they act on them – always finding victims among the innocent and weak in the communities in which they live.

But some religious leaders are still reluctant to act. Some still feel the harm outweighs the good. Better to keep quiet they will say – hiding behind the rules of Lashon Hara - than ruin the good reputation that the Torah world has in the past always enjoyed . And they ‘terrorize’ their communities with all kinds of sanctions and urge them to stay away from non Torah news sources on the internet or bloggers – even Frum ones.

They apparently think they can still keep their world insulated. But there are plenty of people from their world who ignore their calls for ‘internet abstinence’ and use it freely. A while back Rabbi Gil Student reported that he drove though the neighborhoods of Lakewood with a laptop that had a wireless internet connection and was surprised to see how easy it was to get connected.

Frankly I do not know what these people are thinking. Times have changed. There is no way to hide it anymore. The media of the world is strong, open and free. News about a religious sex offender will be the lead story on any nightly news show. It is the hottest topic among bloggers on the internet. Any attempt to hide it has failure written all over it.

Attempts to hush things up by discrediting media and even religious bloggers who report these kinds of stories only makes them and the Torah world they represent look worse. Instead of defending the faith, they are besmirching it with their attitude of hushing things up.

But of course that isn’t the worst of it. It is still all about the victims. They are being victimized twice: First by the sex abuser and second by the religious leaders who tell them to keep it quiet and not go public. There is absolutely no excuse for those who still think like this.

And then there are those reports about religious leaders in Israel who are protecting Avrohom Mondrowitz. If that is true – and I believe it – they too are victimizers. They say that Mondrowitz has suffered enough and are fighting his extradition to the United States.

That is unconscionable! He suffered enough?!

His victims are the ones who have suffered enough, not him. They are numerous and 20 or more years later still suffer - far more than Mondrowitz ever will. I’m told that one of his victims - a religious Jew - actually committed suicide. There are others who because of him have not gotten married and suffer greatly to this day.

Mondrowitz in the meantime was successfully married, had many children, saw some of them married off, and at age 60 has lived a life of relative ease in Israel all these years. His victims need to see him brought to justice. And it would help if all those who enabled him – even though they probably did so unwittingly - as well as those who helped him flee to Israel would own up to it and apologize publicly.

There is an interview of Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz by Orthodox radio personality Zev Brenner that addresses these issues. It is definitely worth listening to. It is available here and at Rabbi Horowitz’s website.

Unfortunately those who should be listening to it the most - the rabbinic leaders who still advocate silence - are not going to. A while back I overheard one popular rabbinic leader when discussing the internet with a fan of his say the following: I can’t say the word ‘internet’! I choke and want to spit when I say it.

When I think of this Rav now - I want to do the same.