Tuesday, October 20, 2009

…And Justice for All

The issue of sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community is a complex one. I wish it weren’t so. I wish it were as easy as a victim going immediately to the authorities and reporting sex abuse. But life is not that simple.

I have agonized about balancing the rights of the victim and the rights of the accused. When in doubt, I have always come down on the side of the victim. But as has been pointed out right here on this blog, sometimes innocent people are accused. If they are immediately reported to the police justice is not served.

The question arises, how are we to protect the innocent? Most advocates of victims of child abuse rightfully say that the interests of the victims are paramount. I agree. Since false accusations are rarely made – especially in cases of child sex abuse – the greater good is served by reporting all accusations to the police. In the rare event of a false accusation the police will sort it out.

Perhaps. But as I said it isn’t that simple. Once the feathers are out of the pillow and the wind spreads them around they are almost impossible to put back. A media report about an accusation of a rabbi molesting a child will make headlines. But a future exoneration will barely make the news.

I have said in the past that every accusation should be reported the police. But only if it is credible. And it is worth taking some time to ascertain that. Not a lot of time. But at least a few days. This does not mean that an accused molester will not be reported unless there is hard evidence against him.

But it does mean that if there is conclusive evidence found of the accused’s innocence, it won’t be. A rush to report an accusation to the police can in effect be a rush to judgment in the public eye. When it comes to sex abuse – there is so much disgust that the common attitude is guilty until proven innocent. But justice demands a higher standard.

An article in the Forward about the role of a religious court – a Beis Din - in sex abuse cases makes that point. The arguments in favor of it are made by Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, president of the RCA (pictured above) and David Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudah. They both say that a Beis Din is a useful tool in ferreting out the merit of a case. Both agree that the authorities should be contacted. But both also say that a Beis Din if appropriately trained can and should be involved.

Frankly, I think this is a reasonable position. But only if the Beis Din is duly trained and works with professionals. And it realizes its own investigative limitations. A letter by Rabbi Kletenik to the Forward (published on Hirhurim) - explains his position. It was in response to what he felt was a possible misimpression of his remarks reported in the Forward article. I think his position is an eminently reasonable one:

I also spoke of special Batei Din or Rabbinical Courts, which exist in some communities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, in which rabbis work together with appropriate professionals, including psychologists, social workers and legal counsel, who are equipped to deal with such cases.

That said - I would forbid any Bet Din that was not so equipped to deal with reports of abuse. And I would advise both the RCA and Agudah to implement sanctions to that effect. I think this is the real source of any problem with religious courts. Too often they are ill equipped and yet arrogant about their Halachic authority in these matters. But even if they are not arrogant and quite sincere, they are still not adequately equipped to handle it.

We do not have to go back too far in history to see how the most ethical of rabbis on such a court erred grievously. Rabbi Yosef Blau points this out in the Forward article. Both Rabbi Blau and Rabbi Mordechai Willig – two of the most honorable and ethical people I know - were involved in a Beis Din that exonerated Rabbi Baruch Lanner. 13 years later Rabbi Lanner was later convicted of sexually abusing two teenage girls.

So the bottom line as I see it is this. If one has the kind of Baatei Din that are properly equipped to handle preliminary investigations as those in Chicago and Los Angeles are (as mentioned by Rabbi Kletenik) - and if caution is used to err on the side of the victim – I am inclined to support them. In other words if there is even the slightest possibility that the accusations are true, the police must be contacted. But short of that, I am inclined to report all cases of abuse to the authorities immediately.