Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Speaking the Truth - and Acting on It

Rabbi Avinoam Cohen - photo credit: Jerusalem Post
Here is a Charedi rabbi we can all believe in.  He is a man of both courage and action. He not only speaks – but does.

Perhaps Rabbi Avinoam Cohen has this approach because of his secular background. Maybe this gives him a perspective that those of us who were born into religious families don’t have.

Or maybe it is the just one of the unique features of the Bal Teshuva who seeks truth regardless of where it leads.  Which is the trait I most admire in them. But whatever the reason is - Rabbi Cohen is fearless. It isn’t easy making a statement like the following which is quoted in an article in the Jerusalem Post:

“They need to put rabbis who don’t go to police in prison,” … “I can think of at least 20 religious commandments that they’re breaking.”

Wow! I had to put that in bold. It is a breathtaking statement. One can perhaps exempt the Agudah Moetzes from this condemnation since they do advocate going to the police – IF – they are first consulted and give their approval. But I think it is safe to say that he is certainly not on the same page with them.  Nowhere in the article does he say that rabbis must first be consulted.

Rabbi Cohen is the director of Israel’s Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s Torah-Observant Prisoner Rehabilitation Program.  In that capacity he counsels sex offenders with the goal of rehabilitating them by using therapy and drugs.

I don’t know how successful his rehabilitation efforts are.  “The heart wants what it wants” and I believe it is nearly impossible to change what any given individual is sexually attracted to. But at least Rabbi Cohen is trying. And if he can’t be successful in changing the nature of a pedophile, perhaps he can at least advise them how to avoid acting on their desires with concrete measures like making sure they stay away from children… and counseling them to use their religious beliefs to reinforce their resolve not to re-offend.

I don’t know what percentage of his pedophile clients are not recidivists. But any percentage is better than 100% recidivism.

Melanie Lidman, the journalist who authored the Post article actually interviewed some of the convicted pedophiles being treated by Rabbi Cohen. These are all people who seem to have been accepted and contributing members of their mainstream Orthodox society. Except for their pedophilia and their inability to control themselves, they tended to function quite well.

Here is what one of them said
T., 38, says he sexually abused over 20 children in Jerusalem during a six-year period. T., who has mild developmental disabilities, tried to tell his family what was going on, but they dismissed it as “total fantasy.” It was the same response they gave him when, as a nine-year-old boy, he told them that an older man from another haredi sect had tried to rape him on the way to an evening study session.
“[My father] said it’s my imagination. They never believed me at home. I had no one to talk to…” He had been confused after the attack, and had no guidance. “If an older person is allowed to do this to me, then maybe I can do this to others,” he said.  “I didn’t know if it was forbidden or not. But someone did it to me, so I thought I could do it to someone else.”
Another observant pedophile who lost custody of his 5 children after he was convicted said the following:
Now I’ve been out [of prison] for a year, and I have supervision,” said Y., 43, who was convicted for abusing two girls over a number of months. “Every day the struggle is renewed. Especially in the haredi areas, there’s small girls and teenage girls everywhere. You can’t get away from this. And you need to know how to be a human being and walk among the community,” he said.
“Sometimes I have no control over it – I’m going through an alleyway and suddenly a bus lets off, like, 100 girls,” he continued. “Every day is a test. Every hour of the morning and night. I have to deal with this all the time.”
It is well established fact that a high percentage of men who sexually abuse children were themselves sexually abused. Which probably means that the number of sexual offenders in the world multiplies exponentially over time. The world of Orthodox Judaism is not immune to that increase. The frightening fact is that if one serial abuser sexually abuses 20 children, many of them will themselves become sexual abusers.

The resistance by a community to deal effectively with the problem therefore actually contributes to it -creating an exponential number of victims generationally.

We all know the reasons for resistance to report. From the article:
…the fact that a child has been sexually abused can sometimes harm the matchmaking chances of other siblings. “People say, ‘Maybe the family isn’t modest, and this kid was doing something immodest, and that’s why this child was abused,’” Cohen explained. But a trusted adult or parent ignoring a child who says they were sexually abused, or, as in T.’s case, trying to convince him it didn’t happen, “is worse than the original abuse,” the rabbi continued.
Rabbi Cohen does offer some hope and gives credit for it where it is due:
Slowly (Charedim are) starting to understand, there’s a type of movement,” said Cohen, who deals with around 60 ultra- Orthodox prisoners at a time who have agreed to go through a personalized rehabilitation process. “It’s not like it was five or eight years ago. They’re not going to leave their children with someone like this [who is known to have a problem], or they will go to the police.”
While the more extreme sects, including Toldot Aharon or Natorei Karta, refuse to deal with police or any secular authorities, awareness of the issue and the proper response is getting better among mainstream haredim, said Cohen in a recent interview.
“The victims [of sexual abuse] caused this movement,” he said. “They feel it in their bones that it’s getting better. The awareness has increased because of the publicity about the incidents, and the children who are failing out of school and no one understands why.”
Why can’t they all be like this? Why must there be so much resistance to doing the right thing by so many of the mainstream rabbinic leadership in the Charedi world? I know they want to do the right thing. Why can’t they see what Rabbi Cohen sees - the unvarnished truth, and who to credit for improvement in societal attitudes?