Thursday, February 19, 2015

Exposing the Truth about Sex Abuse and Cover-ups

Rabbi Yitzchok Groner (The Gaurdian)
Imagine the most respected rabbi in your community, someone that you actually know. A saintly man held in esteem by his community and beyond for many decades. An esteem that was earned by his selfless service and many contributions to his Jewish community. Imagine further that this rabbi was part of a religious segment that prided itself in its fealty to Torah, Mitzvos, and outreach… a man whose every public act was a Kiddush HaShem. 

A man everyone could point to with pride as a role model for Jewish leadership and an exemplar of our faith. A man that was admired by all – even people outside of our faith. Imagine the outpouring of public grief when such a rabbi dies. I’m sure we all know someone like that. And then it is discovered  that he had been accused of covering up sex abuse for decades in order to protect the honor of that community… indeed the honor of Judaism!  

That seems to be what happened to Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, the Chabad Shaliach to Melbourne, Australia. He was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to be his emissary there. He spent 50 years building up that community and its Chabad Yeshiva. So honored was his memory that any attempt to reveal what he had done was fiercely protected by his rabbinic heirs. Calling it a grave sin for anyone who dared to do that.

I completely understand the motivation to protect posthumously the good name Rabbi Groner built up. When the reputation of a religious icon like that is tainted, the push-back can be extreme. And in the case of Rabbi Groner, that is exactly what happened. 

A decades long series of sex abuse and cover-ups ensued. And it all came to a head after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was appointed to investigate it. And then all hell broke loose. From a lengthy article in The Guardian
Sharp divisions in the Jewish world have been exposed. Two rabbis, including one of the nation’s most prominent, have been forced from their posts. Whistleblowers, humiliated and ostracised for years by Yeshivah, have been dramatically vindicated. More victims have come forward. More criminal charges may follow. Yeshivah schools face a nightmare of civil litigation.
This is not the kind of exposure this community seeks. But it is the kind of exposure they need. Because the bottom line is the welfare of victims and the protection of children. We can see from this commission the underbelly of a community more concerned with its reputations than it is with the welfare of abuse victims and the potential danger to its young. And the picture it paints isn’t pretty.

Although it is Chabad in this case, it is not only them. It is every institution that has a reputation at stake. Whether its Satmar, Lakewood or YU. The Catholic Church or Penn State. As disgusting as it is when this kind of behavior is exposed, It is unfortunately understandable although not excusable when  a reputation built up over a lifetime of good service is protected. Denial then becomes the order of the day. 

Threats of retribution are used to protect those reputations. Warning about Mesirah are swiftly cited by rabbis as justification for not reporting abuse. Whether they believe the abuse happened or not,the idea of sacrificing the reputation of the institution for the sake of  justice is too high  a price to pay.

But by now we all know what the result of such an attitude is. Injustice; a lifetime of emotional pain for survivors, suicide, going OTD... and the danger to the community of more abuse if it is not stopped. The events in Melbourne should be instructive to us all. We cannot afford to be so blinded by the reputations of people or the institutions we admire,  that it will cost us the lives of past and future victims.  

There was a video produced by Chabad rabbis in Sydney, Australia that should be seen by everyone. I assume it was in response to all this exposure. They now know what coverups look like to the world. They all said the right things about sex abuse: Report it to the police immediately. There is no issue with Mesirah in these cases. 

It is a very touching video. It was the right thing to do. My only question is, should this arise again in any community in the world – including their own, will they heed their own words… or will they again be blinded by the prestige of a community leader and revert to their old ways of covering up? My hope is that finally the path of righteousness and justice will be followed.