Friday, May 27, 2011

Rabbis or Police – Who Should Decide?

Scenario One:

You sent your precocious 13 year old son to a prestigious Yeshiva high school out of town. There he meets and is befriended by a well respected and world renowned Mashgiach. Not having his father around he saw the Mashgaich as a father figure and they become very close. The Mashgiach is known to have many close relationships with the younger Bachurim.

One day in the middle of Winter Z’man his parents receive phone call from their highly anxious son who reveals to them that he has been sexually abused by the Mashgiach. He tells them that he has had several sexual encounters and was told by the Mashgiach that he was simply preparing him for life as an adult. He goes on to tell his parents in an embarrassed fashion all the horrifying details of the abuse. The young man has never been known to lie. He was always a happy child - a good boy raised in a loving atmosphere. There were never any signs of rebellion. And now suddenly – this!

The child tells his parents he doesn’t know what to do. The Mashgaich had invited him once again for a ‘driving lesson’ where the abuse usually took place. After getting over their shock they called the Yeshiva and said they were going to call the police and report the abuse to them.

Meanwhile the child’s life is potentially ruined. He will never be the same. He will be haunted by this experience for the rest of his life. It will affect all future intimate relationships. And thoughts of suicide are not unknown in victims of sex abuse.

Scenario Two:

A well respected Mashgiach of a Yeshiva who has achieved international acclaim comes home to his loving family – his face ashen. He excuses his children from the room and asks his wife to sit down. He then tells her that the unthinkable has just happened. A young student has for some reason falsely accused him of sex abuse. He was confronted in his office by the high school principal who told him about the accusation. He was needless to say stunned!

He could not believe what he was hearing. He denied the charge vehemently and pointed to a lifelong career without the slightest hint of abuse of any kind. He was in fact a beloved figure to all who knew him, especially those Bachurim he had befriended and treated like his own children – even giving them driving lessons!

His wife had an equally stunned reaction and seemed to be in a state of near shock! She knows her husband to be a good man and a loving father. They have had a normal sex life for over 20 years of marriage and nothing he ever said or did would indicate any kind of sexual abnormality.

He wonders out loud to his wife, ‘What could have possibly happened to this young man for him to have turned on him so much?’ He wracked his brain trying to see if there was anything he had ever done or said to this young 13 year old for him to make such a vicious accusation against him. The parents had called the yeshiva and said they were going to bring charges against him.

Somehow word got out and the Mashgiach’s life was ruined. His family held their head in shame even though they believed in his innocence. Even if he could prove his innocence, there would always be a cloud hanging over him. His life has changed forever.

This is the same story from two perspectives.

Statistics tell us to believe the child. When children report abuse it is rarely a false accusation. And yet we know false accusations do happen as was demonstrated in a recent post of mine.

This is the dilemma that faced Agudah in their recent proclamation made at a conference on this issue. Both Agudah and Torah U’Mesorah came out with a directive that one must never report sex abuse to the police without first consulting a Rav or better yet a Beis Din. They see it as an issue of Mesirah.

This tells me that they value the second scenario over the first. They see a prominent religious figure with a lifetime career dedicated to Torah and Mitzvos and they simply cannot believe the accusation. A good man’s life will be ruined by a hasty and reflexive call to the police by a distraught parent. They know all to well how a man’s reputation can be ruined for the rest of his life. So they are Dan L’Kaf Zechus – innocent until proven guilty.

I’m sure this is not their intention but I see it as a serious issue of Mesirah versus an even more serious issue of Pikuach Nefesh. A child’s life could ultimately be at stake. Suicides are not unknown in cases of abuse!

I’m not sure how they would answer this. Perhaps they do not see it as Pikuach Nefesh when a child is sexually abused. Maybe they see suicides as a Milsa D’lo Schechicha – a rare occurrence that should not impact on the Mesirah issue. I don’t know.

What about the child? How is his (or her) welfare protected? They might take his charge seriously, but are unwilling to take the necessary steps to prevent an abuse that they think might not even be happening. Their solution? They will determine the veracity of the accusations by themselves. Only after their own due diligence will they consider reporting it to the police. The welfare of the accused and his family requires them to hold back.

The problem with this approach as many experts have pointed out - is that they have no training to determine whether an accusation is true or not. That should be left to the professionals who do have such training. What makes matters worse in my opinion is the built in bias in favor of an accused who - until the accusation - was considered irreproachable. Even though I’m sure that the Rabbanim Chashuvim chosen for that Beis Din would in fact be honorable and sincere; never purposely favoring of one litigant over another, it is only natural to inclined to believe someone whose reputation is impeccable over that of a 13 year old boy away from home for the first time.

As much as I sympathize with scenario two, I cannot agree with Agudah’s decision. They are protecting the wrong victim with a decision like this. By taking this approach a child with a credible report of abuse may never get his day in court. What’s worse the sex abuser will continue his clandestine behavior – and perhaps get better at hiding it.

As I said experience has taught us that most accusations of sex abuse by children are generally true. In one wants to be on the side of justice it behooves them to have more concern with the greater potential for abuse than they are with the lesser potential for false accusations.

It should never be the job of rabbinic committees to determine the credibility of such accusations. They simply do not have the training for it. And there are also the built in biases to worry about that can prevent justice and perhaps even perpetuate injustice for both past and future victims – leading to disastrous consequences.

A child advocate told me via e-mail about how angry and upset he is byAgudah’s decision. He related the following story. After telling a supporter about the Moetzes decision and condemning it, the retort was, ‘You must have pretty broad shoulders’ if you can criticize the Gedolim. He said you don’t need broad shoulders. All you need is to have been sexually abused once!

I wonder how the members of the Moetzes would react if God forbid one of their own children or grandchildren told them they were being abused by a prominent Rebbe or other religious authority figure in Yeshiva? Would they tell their son or grandson – we must convene a Beis Din to determine if your accusations are credible? Or would they do as Rav Elyashiv has suggested, call the police immediately?

I do not have broad shoulders. And I do not God forbid attribute anything but the best of motives to the members of the Moetzes who determine Agudah policy and some of whom also guide Torah U’Mesorah. But I strongly disagree with their decision. I will end with the words of Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan (YU). From the Forward:

Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, a prominent advocate on behalf of survivors of abuse, said he was not surprised by Agudath Israel’s position. “The community is committed to rabbinic authority,” Blau said. “They have difficulty with anything that says, ‘You don’t check with the rabbi first.’”

But Blau, whose school is affiliated with the Modern Orthodox stream of Judaism, said rabbis are ill-prepared to decide whether suspicion of abuse is strong enough to be passed to the authorities. “There is no decent justification why anybody in their right mind should think rabbis are qualified to make that judgment,” he said.