Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Exposing Sex Abusers

If there was an accused sex offender in your neighborhood, would you want him to be identified?

Last December Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes (pictured) proudly announced that there had been “85 Orthodox Jews arrested on sex charges during the past three years”. But he was roundly criticized for not releasing any of their names to the public. In an article in the Forward he explained why he refused to do that:

Orthodox Jews deserve a blanket exemption from the usual public disclosure rules. Prosecutors claimed that Orthodox Jews are “unique” in that releasing the names of suspects would allow others in the community to identify their victims.

The circumstances here are very unique,Assistant District Attorney Morgan Dennehy wrote in an April 16 letter to the Forward. “Because all of the requested defendant names relate to Hasidic men who are alleged to have committed sex crimes against Hasidic victims within a very tight-knit and insular Brooklyn community, there is a significant danger that the disclosure of the defendants’ names would lead members of that community to discern the identities of the victims.”

This attitude outrages those in the forefront of fighting abuse. They say that hiding their identities enables sex offenders to continue to operate in secret preying on potential innocent new victims. I think that’s right. While it may be true that by exposing the predator there is a danger of exposing the victim, who may want to remain anonymous, the danger of keeping the identities of sex offenders secret far outweighs the discomfort of previous victims.

But what about those past victims? Should we not take their fears into consideration? After all aren’t victim advocates supposed to be doing exactly that? Advocating for the victims? How does exposing them against their will do that?

The Forward  article does not say how the DA’s office reached their conclusions. My guess is that rabbinic leaders from those communities or the parents of those victims have pressured the DA into taking this position.

But is this position in any way justifiable?

Let us examine the fallout of identifying the perpetrators and thereby exposing the victims. On the one hand knowing the identities of the perpetrators will most certainly aid the communities in protecting their children.

On the other hand the social dynamics of Orthodox Jewry, especially in the more right wing segments of the Chasidic world - victims of abuse are considered ‘damaged goods’ as far as their Shiddach chances are concerned. Their siblings are not much better off in this regard either. A family can be ruined in this way very easily.

This is unfortunately a fact of life even though it is a grossly unfair fact based on real world considerations. It has been well established by mental health experts in the field that a sexually abused child can and often does suffer a lifetime of depression, or worse will try and self-medicate with illicit drugs. Sometimes the depression is so severe that suicide is attempted. All too often successfully! At the very least they can and often do go OTD.

While psychotherapy can help there is no guarantee they will get any. The plain fact is that many right wing Jews – especially Chasidic Jews - are very suspicious of psychotherapy and less likely to seek help. They will instead bury their secret and pretend it never happened. All so that the rest of their children will get Shidduchim. Hopefully even for their abused child when they come of age - if they can bury their secret deep enough.

So goes much of their thinking. The sad fact is that you can’t bury that kind of thing. I doubt that there is an untreated victim alive that isn’t in some way affected by a childhood abuse. Sometimes pretty severely.

And yet that is the social system in those circles. Abuse gets buried for social reasons. Despite the fact that abuse will take its toll on the victims and their families - the world of right wing Orthodoxy refuses to do anything about it for fear of losing out in the Shiddach department.

This is not an unrealistic fear. Based on the above -how many people will knowingly date an individual who was sexually abused? And how many will even date a sibling of that victim?

It is an unsolvable conundrum in my view. There is no good option that will both protect past victims form the devastation brought out by exposing their abusers and thereby being outed as victims… and at the same time allow parents in general to know who the abusers in their community are and take measures to protect their children accordingly. In the end, this about choosing the lesser of two evils.

The question remains which option is the lesser of two evils? And are there any other considerations to be taken into account when identifying abusers?

I will answer the second question first. There are other legitimate reasons to be cautious about identifying abusers. In cases where they are accused and exposed immediately, only to be found innocent soon after, their lives can be ruined. They too are forever tainted. That is a grossly unfair result for an innocent person.

The counter to that is that mental health professionals have determined that the vast majority of those who are accused – especially by very young children are virtually always guilty of the crime. That leaves very few innocent victims of false accusations. This does not mean we shouldn’t be concerned. We should. One ruined life of an innocent man is one too many.

Due diligence should therefore always be taken before exposing the identity of an accused abuser. If he is a known abuser, there is certainly no problem. But in my view even when in doubt, it is far better to err on the side of the victim for two reasons.

One is the greater likelihood that an accusation will be true. The second is that a falsely accused adult can ultimately handle his situation far better than a child who will suffer from the abuse caused by hiding the identity of an accused sex abuser. It is therefore a lesser evil to expose the accused where there is enough evidence about the crime to be arrested and charged.

What about the victims who do not want to be identified? Should they be considered at all? Of course they should. But again, it is much better to prevent children from becoming future victims than it is to protect past victims and their families from the taint of exposure.

The real answer to this problem is community wide education and a wholesale change of attitude about abuse victims. No family should have their reputations tarnished because a family member was abused. Victims should be encouraged to come forward.

And their ought to be a major drive in Orthodoxy to get treatment for the victims as soon as possible. The idea of burying abuse will not only hurt the victim, it will hurt the family too. They will not escape the devastation that will likely be brought about by their abused child being hushed up and being denied treatment.

Once the paradigm of “Hush” is changed, the legitimate fears about exposing victims will hopefully become moot and the entire Orthodox community will be safer, healthier psychologically and better off.