Friday, September 20, 2019

The Sex Abuse Conundrum

David Cheifetz
One of the most difficult problems facing the Orthodox Jewish world is the scourge of sexual abuse. Especially in  its most egregious form, when children are the victims. No one can be more innocent than a child. When it happens, it can and often does have lifelong consequences. Even for those that have managed to get married, have families and careers – and lead fully normal lives. The pain never fully goes away. And in worst case scenarios it causes major disruption to the point of depression and even suicide (not to mention being a cause of going OTD).

At first glance it seems like a no brainer that victims get our unqualified sympathy and support. Unfortunately the opposite is often the case. Even now that there is acknowledgment by most of the Orthodox world that it happens all to frequently even among religious Jewry. Nor is it limited to only one segment. Sex abuse can and does happen across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy. Whether it be Satmar, Lakewood, YU, or Riverdale (as was most recently reported case in SAR). There are unfortunately no shortages of sex abuse cases in any Orthodox environment.

But life is not that simple. Wish it was. But it isn’t. The problem is that in far too many cases, the abusers are people that are otherwise heroes of their communities. People that have achieved great things for their community and even for Klal Yisroel. Were it not for the abuse they would be given virtual sainthood.  

When people like this sexually abuse a minor and it comes to light, the level of disbelief in the community is palpable. How could a ‘saint’  like that have ever done anything like sexually abusing a child? It makes no sense to them. A fellow that is seen to have done nothing but good cannot possibly have done what he is accused of.

Therein lies the problem. Prominent people that have contributed substantially to the community are seen as saints are treated as  saints even when they aren’t.

Accusations then generate disbelief. Which is often accompanied by outrage at the victim for daring to make such accusations!

Sometimes even if the accused who is a prominent contributing member to a community admits their guilt the community and even its leaders will express sympathy for the accused because of their otherwise exemplary reputation.  

You might hear them saying something like this: A person needs to be judged by the entirety of his life and not just the one time they messed up. What about the victim? Sure, they need our sympathy and help, but don’t destroy the lives of both people. The accused is too valuable to just ‘throw to the dogs’.

This is one reason we are still having problems. In situations like this, survivors of abuse are not given the same level of sympathy that their victimizers. By comparison survivors are practically ignored

And that makes them angry. Justifiably so in my view. This was brought home to me by a post written by David Cheifetz in 2014 (re-posted today here).  David is an Orthodox Jewish survivor who has overcome his abuse and leads a normal life despite the fact that it still haunts him. He was angry at the way prominent members of the Jewish community asked for leniency for one such abuser. by the name of Evan Zauder.  Here is an excerpt: 
As bad as Zauder’s crimes were, perhaps, more disturbing for the community, is that when it came to the sentencing, many Modern Orthodox leaders lined up to write personal pleas for leniency. Major figureheads, including senior leaders of Yeshiva University, were keen to support an egregious Orthodox sex offender. 
If one reads any one of those personal pleas it practically makes Zander a saint in spite of his egregious and selfish crime! Here is one example: 
My relationship with (Zauder) continued even after he left yeshiva as he has been instrumental in helping other students grow both personally and as part of our alumni association. This Alumni Association was founded by Evan in 2007 and he has been directing the associations ever since, raising funds and running alumni events…
“Beyond Yeshivat Hakotel activities, Evan has been and major leader in a number of other student organizations line B’nei Akiva. He ran an Israel program for them last year in which he was responsible for over one hundred teenagers. Many of the teenagers and staff members he worked with have told me about how caring and responsible a leader he was…” 
David realizes the problem. As I said, when someone does as much for the community as did Zauder, it is almost impossible to see him in any other light than as a saint. That he admitted it and expresses remorse makes their sympathy even stronger. It is almost impossible to see the man you have known as saintly in any other way. There is a sort of mental block about the horrible things he actually did.

This is where the problem lies. And why there is no  such thing as a zero tolerance policy – even though that is what most schools say they have.

This does not mean that things aren’t going in the right direction. They are. But human nature cannot help but factor in personal and communal experiences when evaluating an accused – or even admitted but remorseful perpetrator. Sympathy comes by naturally for those we know, admire and have respected because of their otherwise good works. For a victim who is not prominent or too young to be, sympathy comes by much harder.  Even though logic dictates that it is the victim that deserves our sympathy and support far more that the victimizer.

Until we recognize that about ourselves as human beings, I guess these problems will unfortunately persist. The question is, can we ever overcome that? And if so how?