Thursday, April 30, 2015

Progress? Yes, but Not Nearly Enough

A typical Charedi family. Are their children safe? (Jerusalem Post)
There is a long running TV drama called Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. It follows the stories of a specialized police unit in New York City that deals mostly with sex crimes.  Many of their episodes are ‘ripped from the headlines’ and based on true stories. A recent episode portrayed the story of a college coed claiming she was brutally raped. The police believed her and the investigation moved forward on the assumption of guilt. That accusation turned out to be false both in this episode and in the real life story.

I mention this to show that sometimes accusations of sex abuse are false. No matter how caring and thorough a police officer trained to deal with abuse cases is, there is a definitely a bias towards believing the victim.

So I can understand why the Agudah Moetzes has mandated that any claim of sex abuse be first vetted by a Rav before taking it to the police. They fear false accusations. We know that they do happen.

Sex abuse advocates tend to dismiss these cases as so rare, that they are not even to be factored into a decision to report abuse. All suspicions of abuse should be reported immediately to the police. Because false accusations are so rare - caution dictates erring on the side of the victim. For the falsely accused however, rare or not, it can ruin his life.

The problem is that victims lives are also ruined by abuse. Far more than those that are ruined by false accusations. And in those cases where the victims are children the ruination can have far more severe consequences that they do for an adult. How many times have we heard about abuse victims that committed suicide – after suffering long bouts of depression. And what about drug and alcohol addictions that result because of attempts by victims to self medicate themselves out of depression? And how man sex abuse victims are so traumatized at being abused by a religious figure that they drop observance altogether?

For me this is no contest. I agree with the advocates.  False accusations are rare. And when they do occur the fallout is usually better handled by falsely accused adults than they are by children who were actually abused. While some do overcome sex abuse and molestation - becoming highly functional members of society, it nevertheless stays with them as part of their lives. It becomes part of their self identity.

Why not go to a Rav first? After all are they too not caring about the victim?

Because it has been shown time and again that protecting the accused is what they are most concerned with. They have an undue fear of innocents being accused and ruining their lives and the lives of their children. Furthermore Shidduchim can be ruined by the reputation of a father that was so accused. Who would want their son to date a girl whose father was accused of sex abuse?

Even if he is eventually exonerated, can we trust that he is really innocent and didn’t get off on a technicality? Besides how can anyone believe that such a respected and beloved figure is capable of such things? And why should we trust the police to ferret out the truth?  These biases move them to believe the accused. They care about the people in their community and want to protect them.

But protecting the accused – even though  they believe it to be for altruistic reasons - hurts the victim. Victims (or survivors - as they prefer to be called)  see this as being molested or raped a second time. Not to mention the fact that this allows the abuse to continue elsewhere since there are no legal consequences to the accused if he is not reported to the police. There is no real way to monitor the behavior of such people. Especially if they are forced to leave town and find another town where no one knows them and they can set up shop.

It should be noted however that progress has been made in the area of ‘before’ – protecting our children from predators. An article in the Jerusalem Post makes note of this via an interview with Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. He said that tremendous strides have been made even in insular Chasidic enclaves like New Square where he has addressed its residents with the full approval of the Skverer Rebbe. His book on the subject of child safety (written by Mrs. Bracha Goetz) has sold over 27,000 copies since its debut in 2011:
Horowitz added that he was now working on Hebrew versions tailored to the specific contexts of more insular hassidic communities so that it will be “culturally congruent” and allow readers to feel that it is relevant to their lives. 
A Yiddish version, endorsed by rabbis of the Satmar Skver community, has so far sold 1,200 copies in the hassidic New York towns of Monroe and New Square, while the upcoming Hebrew version already has received approbation from the haredi community in Israel.
But as Rabbi Horowitz indicated, when it comes to the ‘after’ of reporting abuse to the police, we have a long way to go. Reporting abuse to a Rav first who will then then decide whether it should be reported to the police is mandated by the Agudah Moetzes guidelines on sex abuse . Those guidelines still stand. In the Chasidic world it is even worse. They forbid reporting abuse to the police in all cases - calling it Mesira – the Halachic prohibition of informing on Jews to secular authorities.

Rabbi Horowitz made a very salient point that ought not be ignored:
Younger dayanim, or religious court judges, generally grew up “in safety and security knowing that there is due process,” he said, while those born in Europe, generally older dayanim, were raised to be “terrified of the police.”
This leads me to believe that the members of the Agudah Moetzes are divided on this issue. There may be some that actually believe that sex abuse should be reported directly to the police. But since most members are of the older generation their mentality is still that they are “terrified of the police”. So they trust only themselves to judge what is and isn’t a reliable accusation of sex abuse.

(As an aside, this is one of my objections of how Daas Torah is promulgated by the Agudah Moetzes. They never mention whether there was dissent on any given issue upon which they comment. The dissenters are by their own rules required to publicaly endorse the majority view as though there was no dissent. Thus assuring their views will be taken as the authoritative view of Daas Torah. A view which to my mind undermines the very authority which they wish to achieve. But I digress.)
The results of this approach to sex abuse in the Charedi world has been devastating to victims and their families. As it was to  a distinguished Rav in Lakewood who reported his son’s abuser to the police. He was vilified by the Rabbonim in his community and by a prominent Rosh HaYeshiva of a major Yeshiva in New York. Who has to date not retracted his vilification of that Rav.

And that isn’t the only case in Lakewood. I have been informed of another case (still under the radar) of similar proportions being handled in pretty much the same way by at least one distinguished religious figure there.

What will it take for them to realize how wrong they are? What will it take for them to realize that the right thing to do is report any credible suspicions of sex abuse directly to the police? Will there have to be arrests of great Roshei Yeshiva who covered things up or worse? That’s what happened to prominent priests in the Catholic Church. Will we be next?