Sunday, February 27, 2011

When Image Trumps Substance

One of the biggest impediments to solving many of the problems facing Orthodox Jewry is its obsession with image. Whether it is trying to hide financial irregularities or sex abuse, it seems that the primary concern is not with the victims of various crimes but with how it will reflect on the Torah world if it is made public. In no issue is this a greater problem than that of sex abuse.

I completely understand the motivation behind it. Rabbinic leaders do not want the world to see our warts. They constitute a Chilul HaShem. It is only natural to try and hide them. Of course there are plenty of ‘in house’ reasons for keeping things quiet. A family that has a victim of sex abuse is tainted and Shiduchim become exponentially difficult for any member of the family – even those who were not abused. With the Torah world abuzz with what has come to be known as ‘the Shidduch crisis’, one can certainly sympathize with the desire to keep these things quiet.

Keeping things quiet may be better for Shiduchim - and the overall reputation of both the family and community, but it spells disaster for the victim - and ultimately for the entire Torah world.

I am not one of those who sees only villains and heroes here. Yes there are plenty of both, but the rabbinic leaders who seek to keep things quiet are not villains. They truly believe that their decisions on these matters are for the over-all benefit for the Klal. I can certainly understand their perspective, but I believe that the events of the past few years has proven their decisions to be wrong. And I believe they have themselves come to realize that ‘sweeping things under the carpet’ is not necessarily the correct Torah approach they once thought it was.

At the same time I don’t believe they have gone anywhere near - far enough to change the old paradigm of ‘keeping it amongst ourselves’.

The most recent manifestation of this unfortunate attitude was reported in an article in the Jewish Week.

It tells us the story of a Chasidic Satmar type 30-something mother who was herself sexually abused as a child and then later sexually abused her own child. She went to Ohel for treatment. Ohel is a premier social service agency serving primarily the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Ohel did not report her to the authorities - although eventually the authorities did become involved.

Just to be clear Ohel had broken no laws. Even though they are subject to the mandatory reporting laws, they are often able to use loopholes in the law to avoid reporting abusers. In this case treatment was voluntary and since there was no complaining victim - they claimed doctor/patient actually prevented Ohel from reporting the abuse. If Ohel can legally get out of reporting it to the authorities, they don’t report. They still feel that the best way to handle the problems is to do it without the authorities getting involved.

I would add that Satmar lives in a world of its own when it comes to sex abuse. No where is there greater denial. One need only look at how convicted abusers and their victims are seen by their rabbinic leaders even after they are convicted. The abusers are seen as heroes who have been vilified by sick accusers who are lying about it every time.

Back to Ohel. I want to make clear that I absolutely believe that Ohel means well. In the case of the Satmar mother - they tried to help her without getting the authorities involved. They clearly saw this through the old lens of ‘We can handle our own problems’. It is therefore better to not get the outside authorities involved. And they had a professional staff and a program to treat sex abusers that would prevent them from further sexually abusing children. This way - everyone would come out ahead.

I am not here to criticize Ohel. They have a wonderful and well deserved reputation dealing with foster children. But when it comes to sex abuse, I’m afraid they are still living in the past. ‘Hushing it up’ as much as they can. But no matter what their intentions are, they are playing right into the hands of sex abusers who rely on this attitude to keep on doing what they do without fear of any serious repercussion. Especially in areas like Williamsburg where denial is the strongest.

Time and again it has been shown that the best way to handle sex abuse is to report all incidences of it to the people who are best trained to deal with it - the police and the state social service agencies.

No they are not perfect. Mistakes can be made there too. But few others have the training and resources they do. Reporting sex abuse to the authorities has gotten the approval of many rabbinic leaders, including Rav Elyashiv. There is no issue of Mesirah when it comes to the safety of our children. And yet even with a mandate by someone whom many consider the Gadol HaDor - there is still reluctance to do it. I guess it’s harder to put it into practice than it is to accept it in principle.

I agree with Rabbi Yosef Blau and I conclude with the following excerpt from the Jewish Week:

Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a longtime advocate for abuse survivors, told The Jewish Week referring to the mother’s case as well as others of which he has knowledge.

“They have been the point men for the community [on this issue] and they have accepted the approach of the community, which is never to go to the police. They endlessly [hide] behind technicalities,” Rabbi Blau continued.

“Because [Ohel is] an agency that does wonderful things for children,” Rabbi Blau added, referring to the homes and services Ohel provides for foster children, it is not an agency he would like to see disappear. However, with respect to the handling of child sexual abuse, Rabbi Blau believes that Ohel “is the problem, in a nutshell. They [have shown that they are] not able to deal with the situation that they are legally required and morally required [to deal with]. The workers are all sincere people,” the rabbi added. “Solutions [to the current problem] would involve changing [Ohel’s] leadership. [And] you will know there’s change when they start reporting.”