Sunday, July 24, 2011

Agudah - A Clarification in the Wrong Direction

Update: I had originally written this post as an appreciation of a long sought after change of heart by Agudah on the issue of reporting sex abuse to the authorities. Unfortunately wishful thinking got the better of me. The following is a revised post. Based on my search for Emes and the points rightly raised by some of my readers– I have re-written and re-titled it. It follows.

‘OK – here’s what we meant’. That is pretty much how Agudah frames its most recent statement on reporting sex abuse to the authorities. They have issued a clarification of their recent but controversial statement on that issue. The original statement said that any report of sex abuse must first be vetted by a rabbi with ‘experience’ in these matters. As I understood it, the idea was that unless an abuser was caught in the act, one must first consult with a Rav before reporting an accusation to the police. That interpretation was recently reinforced in a recorded statement by Agudah Moetzes member HaRav Shmuel Kaminetsky during a public appearance.

Many people in the forefront of fighting sex abuse were upset by this as they saw it giving preference to an accused abuser over the victim while extending opportunities for the accused to continue his abuse. The consensus feeling among virtually all of us who objected to it was that rabbis who are not trained professionals are ill equipped to handle these issues.

Additionally that statement seemed to require mandated reporters (e.g. teachers or mental health professionals) to first consult with their rabbis before reporting anything to the authorities – which would have been advising them to break the law and jeopardize their jobs. The question raised by many was why Agudah seemed to be requiring more rabbinic participation in the reporting process than even Rav Elyashiv did.

In what seems to be a reaction to this concern, Agudah has responded. But nothing has really changed. Although they have come a bit closer to reporting cases of abuse to the authorities they still require every report to be vetted by rabbis. In a cleverly worded statement they explain that if there are ‘Raglayim L’Davar’ – credible evidence of sex abuse – it should be reported to the police. They further seem to say that not only should mandated reporters like teachers and mental health professionals should do so - Halacha goes beyond the law in mandating everyone to report sex abuse. They still insist however that rabbis and not professionals be the ones to determine what is and is not credible.

Speaking of misleading - I must object to their use of the words ‘misleading claims’ about their original statement as their reason for issuing this ‘clarification’. That word implies that the widely understood interpretation of that statement was purposely distorted – presumably by those with an anti Agudah agenda. That is an unfair characterization of what most of us did. We read it and understood it in exactly the way Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky reiterated it. While there are some people who are anti Agudah, I am not one of them and neither are many others who have expressed the same concerns.

It is interesting that they begin their clarification by citing that Torah Jews are guided by Halacha – as if there were any question about that. It was never an issue of whether we follow Halacha or not. It was a question of what Halacha dictates. The Agudah Moetzes (which was curiously not even mentioned in this clarification) had at first determined that Halacha prevented people from using their own judgment in all but ‘caught in the act’ cases. Now they clarify and say that Raglayim L’Davar is enough. However they have not changed the requirement that it should be rabbis who determine credibility rather than professionals. Although they do say that rabbis should be in consultation with them when needed.

Why have rabbis involved at all? Especially if they are going to consult with professionals anyway? Can we not trust the professionals to deal with it directly? Are they not the ones best equipped to determine whether cases have credible evidence or are ‘mere conjecture’? Do we not trust professionals to be discreet at investigating cases of mere conjecture?

That said I still believe that this is a step in the right direction. It seems that there will be less reticence by rabbis to report abuse. This was certainly the case recently in Chicago. But no matter how fair and objective a Rav is it will be almost impossible for him to be completely objective about an accusation against a respected member of the community. That is only natural. Why not let an objective professional evaluate every claim? The police are better equipped to do that and are also more objective.

In my view - if God forbid your child - or any child - ever tells you he was in any way molested – do not hesitate. Go directly to the police!