Monday, March 09, 2009

Sexual Abuse and the Internet

What a far cry from what was said at an Agudah conference condemning blogs a few years ago:

“Blogs. That’s what’s going to change it,” Blau said. “There are no secrets in the world of the Internet. You can’t control it, you can’t stop them.”

That amazing statement was made by Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivas Rebbenu Yitzchak Elchanan (Yeshiva University) in response to the issue of abuse. Not of sex abuse but abuse of the concept of Mesirah.

In an article in the Forward, Rabbi Blau acknowledges that the Orthodox community has been slow to act on charges of sexual abuse much of which is because of the misuse of the concept of Mesirah. Here is how he puts it:

Close-knit Orthodox communities enforce the rule of silence with special vigor, said Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University. Mesirah, the halachic misdeed of informing on fellow Jews to secular authorities, was once a mere prohibition, but it has been elevated to a virtual taboo, Blau said at the conference. That taboo may have made sense historically, when Jews lived in hostile nations surrounded by antisemitic authorities, but it doesn’t work for children in America.

“Every abuser knows how to throw around the term, to say, ‘How could you?’” he added.

Rabbi Blau is part of a new group of courageous Jewish leaders - both lay and rabbinic who are rising to the call of victims, rather than calling for ‘discretion’ in how to handle it. The tide has definitely turned.

There was a time not too long ago where victims were told to ‘suck it up’. To basically just live with it for the sake of the community. It was felt that the damage caused by exposure of sex abuse in the Torah world far outweighed the welfare of the individual victim. It was further argued that more harm than good would result from going public. Better to just keep quiet.

We all now know that it is not better to keep it quiet. We also know that it is rare for accusations to be false (although it does occasionally happen). Eventhough caution should be observed to avoid such scenarios, it must not become an excuse for not reporting them or overly delaying such reports.

The greater good is not served by keeping it quiet. The rare occurrence of a false accusation is far outweighed by the need to identify all abusers and get them off the streets. Mesirah should no longer be an issue. The rights of the victim have for too long been swept under the rug - right along with the abuse.

Furthermore sex abusers tend to insert themselves into environments where they can easily prey on potential victims - like becoming teachers in schools. In those instances where they have been caught and fired – they often simply found a teaching job elsewhere. Information about their abuse did not always follow them.

In Orthodox Jewish communities, some yeshivas are also alleged to cover up for and protect rabbinic predators. Even when problems are identified, there is no central tracking system, and nothing to stop a rabbi fired for predation from getting a job with a congregation or school down the block or in another town.

Blau said that means that the only way to stop abusers is to report them to the secular authorities — no matter how strongly that runs counter to years of tradition and indoctrination against “informing.”

A few months ago New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind took upon himself a campaign to try and deal with this problem. I wrote about it at the time. Working with some communal rabbis who understand this problem he attempted to actually do something about it.

Many victims came forward in confidence and opened up to him about the sex abuse they suffered. They revealed the identity of their abusers to him – many of whom were ‘religious’ members of their respective communities. Understandably these victims wanted these names to kept secret for fear of the social repercussions of revealing they were abused. Mr. Hikind feels obligated to keep these names secret.

I understand his dilemma. When this story hit the media, I advocated that the victims themselves come forward to the police. To the best of my knowledge that has not happened. The question arises about the greater good. Does the end justify the means? Is breaking a confidence of a victim justified if sexual predators are thus apprehended and ‘put out of business’?

If that’s true - what about the victim? The ‘system’ that sees the greater good served by betraying their confidence. The predator’s potential victims will now be spared due to his exposure. But the price may be the mental health of a prior victim. I don’t know how to deal with this dillema - but I lean heavily towards prevention. As an op-ed in the Jewish Week by sex abuse victim David Framowitz put it:

I am no scholar. But even I know that Jewish law dictates that it is incumbent upon anyone with knowledge of the existence of an abuser to report the abuser to the police. This is not my opinion. This is undisputed halacha as recently publicized in the written opinion of the most revered fervently Orthodox rabbinic leader alive today, Harav Elyashiv.While Hikind and his fellow apologists talk of compromise solutions that involve rabbis and further cover-up, children are continuing to be abused.

I don’t know that I would go so far as to call Dov Hikind an apologist who will further the cover-ups. But I ‘get’ what Mr. Framowitz is saying. However I would rather use his example than his understandably strong rhetoric. He was abused. He finally came forward. And he is far better off for it. I hope all those who have been abused follow his example and help put sex abusers out of business. That would even be more efficient than blogs.