Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sex Abuse – The Other Victims

One of the most prominent subjects discussed on Jewish blogs is child sex abuse. The dominant attitude is that when a child accuses an adult of molestation, that it should be immediately reported to the police and investigated. I am in fact very supportive of that policy. They are the ones best trained to investigate the charges and see that justice is ultimately done.

There is no question that the reticence in the past by Orthodox rabbinic leaders to report abuse to the authorities and instead sweep it all under the rug has created a situation where molesters have roamed the streets free. They did not worry about being punished even if they were caught. And that this approach has helped create a huge population of victims who suffer many years without getting any justice for the molesters.

The desire of a parent of a victim to protect his family from the stigma of having a child molested motivates them to by keep quiet about it. That usually stifles any attempt to seek professional counseling for the victim or his family. Depression and the inability to form personal relationships and get married are common problems victims face after being molested. Some of them later become molesters themselves. Many go ‘Off the Derech’ (OTD). Some even commit suicide having been left alone to deal with their feelings of guilt and shame, with no justice at all - seeing a very dim future.

That’s why great organizations like the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children was formed. They are doing a good job of creating public awareness and seeking justice for victims of abuse. But even under the best of circumstances - justice no matter how well served, can never completely remove the pain and the memory of the molestation nor completely eliminate all the repercussions of it for the victim and his family.

For these reasons arguments about the other side of the coin have correctly been met with strong resistance by victim advocacy groups - the other side of the coin being false accusations.

The argument is that in the rare cases where a false accusation is made, it is not worth a regression to the tactics of the past where protection of the molester and his family and the reputation of Orthodox Jewish community superseded the welfare of the victim. Besides the stigma of a false accusation of an adult is a lot less serious than the harm done to a child that was sexually abused. I think that’s right. But is it fair?

I wonder just how rare false accusations are. One thing is certain. Even though I agree that victims of abuse should take priority over concern over false allegations - a false accusation can nonetheless ruin a man’s life. The stigma will stay with him forever, no matter how innocent he is.

And the police, as well trained as they are not always able to determine the veracity of a victim’s claim. I am not suggesting letting up on our vigilance. On the contrary. I think that we in the Orthodox Jewish community are still not there yet in terms of being on the side of the victim. But that does not solve the problem of false accusations. It might even be doing the opposite. Because we are so legitimately concerned for the victim - there is an increased likelihood that someone will be falsely accused and denials not believed. Thus ruining an innocent man’s life.

This was brought home to me this morning when I saw exactly this case on NBC’s Today Show.

Sean Lanigan was a well-respected teacher at the Centre Ridge Elementary School where he had been teaching for more than a decade. He was accused by one of his 12 year old female students of molesting her. She described the molestation in great detail. The police believed her and he was arrested and locked up for 4 days.

He was originally shocked by the accusations and in a state of disbelief. He was a very popular teacher and soccer coach; married with children and no history of abuse at all. He was offered a plea deal but refused because he wanted to prove his innocence. He was acquitted at trial by a jury after only 47 minutes of deliberation. The student later admitted that the whole thing was a hoax designed as revenge against a teacher she didn’t like. The details of why are at the show’s website.

This fellow’s life has changed forever. His legal debt for defending himself in court is well into six figures. His beloved school will not rehire him. He does not sleep nights and is currently in therapy. The bills that are a direct result of this false accusation are increasing.

How does one prevent something like this from happening? I realize that children come first and that the pendulum still has a lot of swinging to do before the Torah world gets it right. But that does not help the innocent victim of a false allegation. I don’t know how often false accusations occur, but I’ll bet it is more often than we know about.

While I still support maximum efforts on behalf of the victims and increased action to prevent abuse and punish molesters and their enablers, it is unfair to do the victims of false accusations what was done in the past to victims of actual molestations.

I don’t know what we can do about it but there has to be a better way to handle this than looking only at the child. Of course children come first. But that does not mean we abandon our concern for people falsely accused. The way public sentiment is going, however, I think these kinds of victims are getting short shrift. And that isn’t right. Don’t agree? Talk to Sean Lanigan.