Monday, November 21, 2011

Sex Abuse - Unanswered Questions

Yesterday I was privileged to attend an event entitled ‘If You Know Something, Say Something’. It dealt with sex abuse in the Orthodox community and the message was if one knows about sex abuse it should be made known to the authorities; ‘If You Know Something, Say Something’.

There were several speakers at this event including the Av Beis Din of the RCA and CRC - Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz. He spoke about the Halachic aspects of Lashon Hara and Mesira in the context of reporting abuse to the authorities. Citing Halachic sources (the Aruch HaShulchan and Tzitz Eliezer) he stated unequivocally that when it comes to sex abuse, or any abuse for that matter, not only does Lashon Hara not apply, neither does Mesirah. Mesirah does not in any case apply in countries governed by the rule of law - including even the Czarist Russia of the Aruch HaShulchan’s time - one of the most anti Semitic governments in Jewish history.

If one is aware of abuse taking place one should call the police even on Shabbos. What about asking a rabbi first? Rav Schwartz retorted that if one saw a fellow Jew breaking and entering a neighbor’s house to steal from him - would they first ask a rabbi before reporting him to the police?! It doesn’t matter if the criminal is a Jew or a non Jew. If a crime is committed in a country where the rule of law reigns, one is obligated to report it to the police.

Mrs. Rachel Zimmerman spoke next. She heads Project Sheild which is an organization in Chicago dedicated to help victims of sex abuse. She encouraged anyone who knows about abuse whether victim or witness to come forward to Project Shield and be helped.

And then there was Ms. Barbara Blaine. She is the founder and President of SNAP – Surivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She was riveting. She spoke of the major problem in the Catholic Church which is only now even beginning to be addressed. She cited a statistic stating that the Church itself estimates that at least 6000 of its priests have been or are involved in some sort of abusive behavior. This was a shocking statistic to me.

She then told the story of her own abuse by a priest as teenager in Toledo, Ohio. Her description of the devout religious community she was raised in sounded eerily familiar. Their entire lives revolved around the church and their hierarchy. Priests were venerated as near saints. What ever they said was law – never questioned. And their superiors – Monsignors, Bishops, and Cardinals - were their Gedolim. Their words venerated as though coming from God.

Ms. Blaine described how her parish priest - so revered by her family and her community sought her out over 7 siblings because of her ‘Frumkeit’ . Ironically her twin sister was a rebel. But it was the devout sister was that was chosen for the honor of being raped by the priest. At that point her life was changed. Her grades suffered as did her social life. She felt different from her friends. She felt alone. She felt dirty.

Eventually telling her parents, they decided to go to the priest’s superior - the Monsignor. He told them that they should keep it quiet and that they would deal with internally. Reporting it to the police would irreparably harm the church. Besides this was his first infraction. The parents being good Catholics listened to their religious leaders and did not report it to the police. It turned out that it was in fact not is first infraction and his superiors knew it. They had been receiving reports about his abuse for decades prior to Ms. Blaine’s rape and covering it up. And it continued many years after that.

Mutiply that by 6000. It makes me sick to my stomach.

The last speaker was Mrs. Judy Brown. She is the Eishes Chayil who authored the book ‘Hush’. The BeShaitled and modestly dressed Mrs. Brown testified to her Orthodoxy. She was even more riveting that Ms. Blaine. Not so much by what she said, but by how she said it. She projected a sense of both sadness and anger. Her words were almost identical to my review of her book. It described the two worlds of Chasidus in which she was raised. She called them the upper-world and the under-world. The upper world was so sheltered that that words like sex, rape, and molestation were unheard of– never uttered. Those who dared to ever use words like that in that world were considered evil.

Anyone even hinting that there might be sex abuse in their community was ostracized. And then there was the lower world where those things actually happened. She lived in both worlds and described one case she knew of where the pain of an abused boy was so great that he ended up drinking some bleach. The upper-world ever in denial painted an innocent picture of that event saying that the boy thought it was milk. He survived only to later commit suicide successfully.

Mrs. Brown’s theory of why the Chasidic world is in such denial is that it is the result of the Holocaust. Religious survivors wanted to rebuild in America the idealized world they came from. They succeeded. But their view of the European model was distorted. Sex abuse existed there too. But because of the devastation of the Holocaust and their determination to rebuild, they remain to this day in denial about it.

Over all yesterday’s event was successful as measured by the message and attendance. Although I was a bit disappointed by what seemed to be a 3-1 ratio of women to men – I was glad to see an overflow crowd there.

But to be honest I left a bit disappointed. There were some serious questions that remained unaddressed in my mind. The primary one being a source of much controversy. In cases of doubt - how is one to determine what is considered Raglayim L’Davar – credible evidence of abuse? Who should determine it - Rabbis? ...or trained and experienced professionals who deal with these things?

No one denies when there is a fire you put it out. One who witnesses abuse should not hesitate to call 911 even on Shabbos. But what if someone only suspects it – without witnessing it? Should we believe anyone who ever comes forward with an accusation every single time and immediately go to the police?

The quick answer the last question is yes. Let the police and their trained professional psychiatrists sort it out. It is well known that when a child comes forward with an accusation - the vast majority of the time it is true.

What about the rare instances when an accusation is false? Victim advocates say that we must always err on the side of the child accuser rather than the accused, no matter how pure the reputation of the accused is. Victim advoctes understand that a false accusation can have lifelong consequences even when all questions of guilt have been removed and the accused has been exonerated – even when the victim recants.

But they say that erring on the side of the victim is far more important because - as Ms. Blaine pointed out - an abused child that is not believed has far more serious consequences often including suicide. And as Mrs. Brown pointed out, over 70% of children who go off the Derech (OTD) have been abused.

I agree with that assessment. But that does not make it any easier for someone who has been falsely accused. His life will be altered. So again how does one determine when a suspicion of abuse warrants reporting it to the police? ...and who gets to decide when and what to report? I wish those issues would have been addressed yesterday. Maybe next time.

Updated: 5:20PM CST