Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sex Abuse - Looking under the Rug

The boy was raped before he could take his weekly mikvah. Pinned from behind in the bathhouse where Orthodox Jews purify themselves with rain water, the 7-year-old never saw his attacker.

These are the opening words in an APP.com article about a change in attitude in how to deal with sex abuse in the Orthodox world.

I think we all ought to absorb these words and never forget them. This ought to be our starting point when dealing with sex abuse. It should be our clarion call for action. Kind of like ‘Remember the Alamo’ was for Texans who fought for their state’s independence from Mexico.

Perhaps this was on the minds of those who are now acknowledging past mistakes and trying to change things. There seems to be some positive movement in the area of dealing with child sex abuse in the Torah world.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. There have been other positive steps taken albeit baby steps. But they have not been uniform across the spectrum of Orthodoxy. Some communities have moved faster and better on this issue. The Orthodox Baltimore rabbinate came out with a serious document dealing with it a couple of years ago. And though the community was later challenged about just how serious they were in implementing the contents of that document, their approach is still light years ahead of what it was before that.

I also recall a very positive article in the now defunct Agudah publication, the Jewish Observer that for the first time tackled this issue in a serious and positive way. And then there was the apparent sea change in attitude expressed by the very Charedi publisher of the American Yated Ne’eman, Rabbi Pinchos Lipshutz, who now advocates very strongly for the victims and their families.

I’m sure there are many more example of this. And there have been some setbacks. The debate over the Markey Bill that would have extended the statue of limitations on bringing lawsuits against abusers and their enabling institutions comes to mind. But there has definitely been progress – although we have a very long way to go.

Contrast that with the initial reaction by Agudah encapsulated in the now infamous line uttered by Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon that the Torah requires us to sweep certain things under the rug. That may have been the worst response ever to this issue regardless of what he meant by it.

This article suggests that progress continues even in places like Lakewood where Rabbi Salomon is perhaps the major influence on the Torah world there.

Joseph Diangello - now 29 years old - was the victim of the above rape and has rejected Judaism because of it. He even changed his name to one that sounds less Jewish. This makes the following quote from the article quite remarkable:

On Sept. 26, he stood in a synagogue (in Passaic N.J.) for the first time in years, he said, before a sea of bearded men in black hats and women in customary wigs. For a brief moment, there was a sense of pride for the heritage he left behind. "This is the first time I'm validated in the Orthodox community"

As is a remarkable statistic: Pedophile arrests have jumped by as much as 800 percent in Brooklyn.

These are important steps that should not be minimized by anyone. As I said the approach is not uniform. Lakewood is apparently slower to make changes. But even they are not standing still:

Community leaders are planning two closed-door seminars in December: one to teach school officials, clergy and social workers ways to identify possible offenders and detect warning signs; the other, to teach parents prevention skills.

Even Rabbi Salomon seems to be getting it. He has closed down a Bais Din that was set up to deal with sex abusers. While there is some question as to his motives - in that it may have had to do more with the breakdown of a particular case - there is no question about the result. Perhaps finally now the Torah world is beginning to realize that they simply are not equipped to handle sex abuse cases. And that perhaps their own biases might get in the way of justice.

I still have to wonder why everything there has to be so secretive. No interviews to the media and all sessions are closed door. I would love to see more transparency. But at least even Lakewood is slowly beginning to do something about it.

The biggest change seems to be in the attitude toward secular authorities. In the past they were mistrusted and almost completely shunned as an avenue for helping abuse victims. There is now a virtual 180 in this regard. Cooperation rather than confrontation seems to be the order of the day:

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, who runs the social aid agency Lakewood Community Services Corp., said the most recent sit-down Nov. 20 focused on appointing a liaison between the Prosecutor's Office and the Orthodox community. Being from the community, the appointee would help prosecutors and investigators gain the trust of Orthodox residents who have long been wary of outsiders. "The purpose is to bridge the cultures"

For their part - the Prosecutor’s Office is doing everything it can to work with the religious community in order to deal with the problem effectively while being sensitive to religious issues. Is there a place for a Beis Din? That issue is unresolved in my mind. Rabbi Weissberg maintains it is asserting that it has tools that the prosecutor’s Office does not. I’m not use what those tools might be. Nonetheless - as I have said in the past - I tend to think that with the right kind of training and in full cooperation with the authorities, it does have a place. But I also tend to doubt that such a Beis Din yet exists. At least I am not aware of one.

Why is the right wing Torah world so slow to change? Here is what Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Yosef Blau had to say about it:

Lakewood's population, composed mainly of Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews, is perceived as the most tightly knit, religiously strict community in the region, if not the nation, making traditions difficult to break and change difficult to bear. "It was set up as an island to re-create the yeshivos in Eastern Europe," Blau said. "To be removed from all influences of American society." Such walls have frustrated Orthodox social workers trying to make dents in the sex abuse problem.

Is he wrong? Not according to Lakewood’s own Rabbi Weissberg. His reponse:

"That's why they insist we have to get it right this time," Weisberg said, referring to Batei Din and the program with prosecutors. "If we don't get it right, we take two steps backward."

I could not agree more.