Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Changing the Culture of Abuse

Mordechai Jungreis
I recently had a discussion with a survivor of sex abuse that occurred many years ago. He is a wonderful fellow who has adjusted quite well in life. He has a career, a family, and is well respected in his community. But this does not spare him the mental torment and anguish he suffers to this day.

One of the things we both agreed upon was the idea of changing the culture in how the Orthodox Jewish community deals with sex abuse. It needs to happen. But I’m not sure it will ever be entirely possible to do it. Which makes an op-ed like this one in the New York Times one to take special note of.

Op-ed columnist Frank Bruni, who has spent an inordinate amount of time following, reporting, and commenting on the subject of sex abuse in the Catholic Church has turned his attention to Orthodox Jewry. The picture he paints is not a pretty one. And when the New York Times paints a picture, a lot of people see it. Especially when that picture deals with one of the hottest topics of our day – sex abuse.

One might ask, how is it possible that abusers are not treated with the disdain they deserve? Why are they not thrown in jail to rot there for the rest of their lives? Why do good people allow abusers – through their actions or inaction –  to get away with their crimes? Is the Catholic church made up of evil villains who don’t care when one of their flock becomes a victim which causes their lives to be ruined… to become so depressed that some of them become drug addicts, alcoholics, or even attempt suicide? How callous must these people be?! 

How uncharacteristic for a church hierarchy to be so callous when by their calling - they are pledged to doing good for others. One of the reasons given  for requiring celibacy is so they can devote more time to their flock… time they would not have if they had to deal with their own family. Priests - I would think - rise in the hierarchy of the Church by virtue of their level altruistic activities. And yet so many in the church hierarchy are guilty of cover-ups. Or of transferring accused pedophiles to other arch-dioceses where they often continue their predatory behavior. How can good people let that happen?

Unfortunately the Orthodox Jewish community seems to have had the same pattern. This was the case with two employees of Yeshiva University both of whom were fired – one immediately; and one years later. Both were however allowed to go on to other communities freely and without warning. 

In communities like Satmar and Lakewood they take this a step further and often deny, deny, deny! …all accusations against an abuser made by a victim.

Last year the New York Times reported the case of Mordechai Jungreis, the 39 year old Satmar Chasid and father of a mentally disabled son who was shunned after reporting his son’s abuse at a Mikva to the police.

In Lakewood, they not only considered an abuser to be a victim, they took out their vengeance on the victim’s father who until then was a highly respected Charedi Rav in their own community.

To a survivor of abuse and their families, all of the above scenarios are unacceptable. Whether they were ignored (by the Catholic Church and YU) or persecuted even further (by Lakewood and Satmar) makes little difference. They suffer all the same. The depression, anger, and resentment is always there. And often when innocence is stripped away by abuse and victims are mistreated by their environment they lose their religion as well. 

Is the Catholic Church hierarchy, Modern Orthodox institutions like YU, and Charedi institutions like Satmar and Lakewood full of evil people who care more about the institutions they run than they do about the individual victim - who they figuratively throw into the garbage can?

The easy answer would be to say yes. They are run by callous people willing to sacrifice the few for the many. But I do not subscribe to that theory – as tempting as it is to do so.

As I have said many times in the past. Many abusers have impeccable public reputations. And for the most part those reputations are earned. They actually are good contributing people in many other ways. That is how they become respected in the first place. 

But they obviously have a dark side that only their victims know about. So when an accusation comes forward, it is impossible to believe. It is therefore understandable to accuse a not so prominent victim of lying and believe only the best about the accused whose reputation is otherwise impeccable. It’s hard to blame anyone for that. It’s human nature to give the benefit of the doubt to someone with an impeccable reputation.

When accusations are believed - I do think that protecting their institutions is part of reason for cover-ups. But I also believe that in the past they believed doing so was actually helping the victim by sparing him the stigma that would come with public exposure. Sweeping abuse under the rug was seen as benefiting both sides. Reporting it to the police would be counter-productive to the mental health of the victim. This is of course very wrong. We now know that the opposite is true.

What about the problem of an allowing an abuser to continue his predatory behavior by not reporting it? I guess the religious hierarchy felt that they would keep their eye on him and make sure that he would not do it again. That too was a mistake. Sexual predators find ways to continue abuse, avoid detection, and intimidate victims into never to reporting it to anyone.

What about past practices of sending predators to another community? I guess they felt that as long as they got rid of him in their own community – problem solved as far as they were concerned.

In many cases when an accused predator was kicked out of town, Jewish communities were warned about him. There was a case like that here in Chicago many years ago. An accused abuser came here with his family because he was intimidated and threatened enough to want to leave his home town. After arriving in Chicago, he was virtually shunned by Chicago Jewry. That family eventually made Aliyah. Ironically that fellow turned out to be innocent of any abuse and was himself a victim of scurrilous lies having to do with a personal dispute not involving sex abuse. He was accused of it as a tactical ploy by his disputant.

Which explains why years ago - some people felt that an accused pedophile should be kicked out of town without reporting him to the police. They feared ruining an innocent man’s life. Without conclusive evidence it would stigmatize him as an abuser - when in fact he might be innocent. That was Dr. Lamm’s thought process when he fired one such abuser and did not inform the community he ended up in.

Of course we now know better. Accusations of abuse are rarely false. And it is always better to err on the side of the victim and report abusers immediately… not letting it get to the point of letting him leave and informing an outside community. Let the experts in the police department here and now determine whether allegations are true or not.

The cover-ups of the past were therefore not necessarily only about preserving the reputation of an institution. The people who covered things up thought they were doing the right thing for all concerned. They did not realize the damage being done to the victim nor did they think about the possibility that an abuser would continue his predatory ways there or elsewhere.  And now - with a New York Times story about the way things are handled in Orthodoxy the very thing they were trying to prevent has happened in spades.

So, the culture of how abuse is treated has to change. First and foremost to protect our most valuable assets – our children.  Second to pursue justice for the victims. And third to rehabilitate the reputations of these institutions. The way this was handled in the past was wrong… even as they may have believed it was right. They ended up sacrificing innocent victims - hurting them more; gained nothing but anger from them; public anger and condemnation – and bad national press to top it all off.

I can’t speak for Catholics. But I think I can speak for the vast majority of Jews in saying that the new paradigm for sex abuse ought to be a no tolerance policy. Any and all reasonable suspicions of sex abuse must be reported directly to the police. Future victims must be treated with the compassion and human dignity they deserve. And last but not least past victims must somehow be made whole by trying to make up for all the hurt caused them by past cover-ups - even if no malice was intended.