Monday, March 30, 2009

A Seat at the Table

How far we have come since Rav Matisyahu Salomon spoke about child sex abuse a few short years ago at an Agudah convention. He gave very short shrift to the issue then - emphasizing that sometimes - sweeping things like that under the rug is the right thing to do.

I am not here to criticize Rabbi Salomon’s remarks. There is room to interpret his words in a positive light. But neither can I fully understand rabbinic leaders past reticence to speak out forcefully on the subject. In my view that reticence has contributed to prolonging the problem - even if was done with the best of intentions. But reticence has turned out to be a bad move. Too many people have suffered because of it.

Again - I am not here to talk about past mistakes. I am here to praise a latecomer. And I for one am willing to give him a good seat at the table.

Yated Ne’eman editor Rabbi Pinchos Lipshutz is a man I do not often agree with. But he has done something remarkable in his latest editorial. He is now on board with those of us who want to see the scourge of child sexual abuse eradicated. What is important is not his past reticence - but his current stand. He has joined in the call to see our young people protected. And he does not mince words.

What is even more encouraging is that the Yated does not ‘speak’ without consulting rabbinic authorities – especially on sensitive issues like this. Rabbi Lipshutz acknowledges doing exactly that. Not only did he get their blessing, he was encouraged to use his own words.

Much of what he says has been said by others - including me. This may be a turning point in the way we deal with sex abusers in the future. With the exception of a few Charedi heroes like Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz and Dr. Ben Zion Twerski - I do not recall anyone in the Charedi world being as frank and bold in their language. Here are some excerpts from that editorial (available in full at VIN):

The sad fact is that children in our community are being abused by perpetrators who prey upon their innocence and our silence… There is no real debate about the catastrophic effects of abuse.

The innocence and purity of children is destroyed for life. The victims remain hurt, shamed and scarred. They suffer in silence, afraid to reveal their secret to anyone. They are hounded by feelings of guilt and embarrassment and live lives of tortured pain. The overwhelming majority of survivors suffer in silence, unless they are lucky enough to endure agonizing, arduous, expensive therapy.

However, even a lifetime of therapy doesn’t ensure that the victim can ever be fully healthy again. Not every young victim’s psyche can be healed. Victims are much more likely to go off the derech, become addicted to drugs and lead a life of abusing themselves and others.

Let us be clear: For too long, we weren’t tuned in to these innocent victims’ stories and their pain. For too long, we weren’t sufficiently aware that this problem existed and thus were able to ignore the quiet pleas, the sad eyes, the pained lives, and the personalities withdrawn. We didn’t recognize the warning signs and thus largely ignored the phenomenon. Equally clear, this inattention was not a function of some high level conspiracy to harm people or cover up for criminals or abet nefarious activities. It was simply a function of a lack of education about a complex and highly sophisticated problem. It was a result of our leadership simply being unaware of the depths that such sordid people could sink to, and the extreme skill perpetrators exhibit in covering their tracks. And yes, it was undeniably a gezeirah, which, as so often is the case, claims innocent holy souls…

Truly amazing. I could have written those words myself.

There is one section of his editorial that I would like to address and that is the following:

I am all too aware that it is fashionable in certain circles to blame this all on our rabbinic leadership. These people have yet to explain why our rabbonim, who devote their lives to serving people, would want to hurt anyone. … suffice it to say that it defies logic to accuse our most choshuve leaders, who exhibit much mesiras nefesh, of coldhearted indifference.

I cannot speak for others, but I for one never said that rabbinic leaders were out to hurt anyone. On the contrary - but for a few obvious exceptions I think it is fair to say as Rabbi Lipshutz does: Rabbinic leaders - of all stripes - are Moser Nefesh for the welfare of Klal Yisroel. They have indeed dedicated their lives to that end. That is one of the attributes of being a true leader.

I have said this many times and I say it again now. To say that they don’t care or in some way conspire against the welfare of the Jewish people is both ridiculous and an outrage.

These rabbinic leaders are generally men of great wisdom who work very hard. They always mean well. At the same time I also believe that some of their decisions were made in error - even while they truly believed they were acting in the best interests of the Jewish world. And in the area of child sex abuse - that ended up doing harm to victims and prolonging the danger of abuse.

Hopefully this signals an over-all change in attitude - which will lead to more effective efforts to end abuse. We will have to wait and see. But in the meantime I welcome Rabbi Lipshutz’s late entry into battle against abuse. I would hope that people of all stripes who share these concerns welcome him too.