Thursday, March 19, 2009

Do Victims of Sex Abuse Come First?

A young 9 year old boy wakes up his father in the middle of the night and says that he can’t sleep. He then tells him what happened that day in school. He was sexually abused by one of his teachers. His father startled and outraged wants to immediately call the police and report the perpetrator.

Upon hearing this his mother – already in tears says, ‘Wait!’ What will this do to our son? Is it worth the additional trauma he will almost certainly have to go through? …the public exposure and humiliation? ...the possible trial and recounting of (and thereby mentally re-living) the experience? What about future Shiddach problems that will almost certainly arise?

After discussing the issue for a few hours they decide that the best thing they can do for their son is to handle it as discreetly as possible. The next day they call a psychologist who is an expert in treating abused children …and keep things quiet. The child is grateful for that. He does not want to be known by his friends as an abuse victim. That will almost certainly change the way he is looked at by his friends forever – even if they are sympathetic to him.

Did they do the right thing? By not disclosing the incident to the police they also do not reveal the identity of the abuser. That means the abuser is allowed to roam free and seek new victims – endangering the entire population of the school.

As reported by the Jewish Week this is essentially the issue that was debated at a conference recently in Teaneck, New Jersey sponsored by the Union for Traditional Judaism.

Rabbi Mark Dratch who addressed the conference is an individual for whom I have great admiration. He he has done a great deal in the area of combating sex abuse. He believes that the victim’s welfare is trumped by the greater needs of the community that needs to be protected from sexual predators.

As such the decision by the parents in hypothetical case I presented is wrong. And by extension so is the decision by Assemblyman Dov Hikind. He has withheld the names of perpetrators revealed to him in confidence by their victims.

Although Rabbi Dratch acknowledged the legitimate conflict between the victim’s welfare and the public need, he feels that the names must be revealed so as to prevent endangering untold future victims.

But... I am still not so sure about that.

This approach is contradicted by Professor Rachel Yehuda, who teaches psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Medical School. She said:

‘Reporting is not the very first thing that needs to happen.’ When a child discloses - the No. 1, most important thing that needs to happen is to help the child.’

This is a dilemma whose solution does not necessarily have a universally good outcome. The question of whether the ends justify the means is nowhere better demonstrated then here. Two approaches - and when one side wins the other side loses. Which one should be taken?

I am afraid that I simply do not have an answer. I tend to side with the victims over the potential victims. But I am not so sure I am right.

I have said in the past that victims should come forward themselves and reveal the names to the police directly. But that is a lot easier said than done. Walk a mile in a victim’s shoes before telling him or her to do that.

Unfortunately the fears expressed by the victim and his parents in the hypothetical case I presented are all to real. The victims life – already changed by the abuse will have to go though untold additional misery by a community unprepared in how to deal with him.

And the community’s fears about abuse victims as Shiddach prospects for their children are not all that illegitimate. The prospect of an unstable marriage when one of the spouses was a victim of sex abuse is real. Who can blame the victim of abuse or a parent for wanting to avoid the public stigma?

They would much rather that their child be treated privately and successfully by a professional and then be able to go on with their lives without the attending social branding that will almost certainly be the case when it comes time for Shiduchim. Who is to say they are so wrong for wanting to protect their child?

So I am conflicted. And I have no solutions.