Thursday, December 15, 2011

Out of Control Passion and Rhetoric

Every once in a while I get an e-mail from someone who was sexually abused as a child. I recently received such a letter from someone who described in great detail what one particular pedophile did to him as a young preteen. I can’t even begin to describe the visceral anger I felt as I read it, literally frozen to my computer screen. Fortunately the writer who is an adult now has remained observant. Although I would not have blamed him in the slightest if he had rejected not only Orthodoxy but Judaism itself.

That e-mail is why I cannot condemn the harsh criticism by advocates of rabbinic leaders like those who serve on the Agudah Moetzes. But I cannot condone it either because I completely disagree with the way they do it. They often use hateful invectives against them because of their perception that they do not seem to care about the victims. Or at least care more about the survival of the system at the expense of the victims. If God forbid it were me or one of my own children that were molested, I’m not sure I wouldn’t feel the same way.

That said, I am going to do something that may upset victims and their advocates. I base my views on my ability as a non victim to see things more objectively. I do not see these rabbinic leaders as evil. Quite the contrary. I see them as sincere. I do not think for a moment that they wish to see any harm come to victims. I instead see much sympathy from them for the plight of the victim. Although I have publicly disagreed or questioned their positions on this issue, I do not believe for a minute that they do so out of any sense of harming them - or for personal gain.

There are those who say that many of Agudah’s pronouncements and attitudes are generated by money. In one sense that is true. Money is needed to fuel the system. Without it, the entire system would crash. It is not personal gain or loss that concerns them. It is the very existence of the system itself.

Let us take the Markey Bill as an example. That bill would have extended the statute of limitations on lawsuits that could be brought against abusers and their enablers. The Agudah Moetzes wanted to protect their schools from financial decimation from lawsuits brought decades after the original statute of limitations ran out. They feel that a school that decades ago allowed an abuser to do his thing but is now a different school with a new faculty and administration - and that had no connection to the past - ought not be penalized for the sins of there forebearers. They believed that these kinds of lawsuits would irreparably and unfairly harm the system. Passing the Markey bill was too high a price to pay.

I disagreed with them on this issue and sincerely believe that justice would be better served if we allow the victims their day in court. And I further believe that the system would survive. Just as it did in other states who extended their statute of limitations.

The point is that Agudah’s position was not really an unreasonable one. To accuse them of being anti-victim because they were anti Markey is therefore untrue and unfair.

The same thing is true about the most recent controversy - their requirement to report abuse first to rabbis for the purpose of determining the veracity of an accusation. Here too I disagreed with them. I do not think rabbis are the ones best trained to determine which accusations are valid and which are not. But again, to say that they are anti victim because of this is unfair.

They are concerned that someone accused arbitrarily of abuse will be ruined for life. A legitimate concern. My view is that we ought to let the experts decide and not rabbis. If one suspects abuse, report it to the police immediately! But I do not fault the Agudah Moetzes motives here. They believe that with proper training their rabbis will do a good job in vetting legitimate accusations from the illegitimate. And thus spare an innocent man from a lifetime of suspicion – even after he is exonerated.

There are those cynics who will accuse some rabbis of trying to protect an accused abuser because they simply cannot believe it about him. I suppose there is some truth to that. Which is another reason to go straight to the police. But a predilection to believe the accused in some cases does not stem from any nefarious motives. It is simply a bias of trust built up over the years of knowing the accused as an honorable man and disbelieving such things about him.

But the critics are relentless in their antagonism towards – and even hatred of - Agudah. To be fair some of that antagonism comes from the way things were handled in the past. Victims were badly treated then. And abusers were thus enabled to continue with their abuse. As was the case with one of the more notorious abusers who was a Rebbe in an elementary school. 20 years of uninterrupted abuse happened there. Or the cases where a school or community simply kicked an abuser out of their neighborhood or city – allowing him to go elsewhere and set up shop.

Their inexperience in dealing with pedophiles led them further down the wrong path often believing they could prevent further abuse internally without police involvement. That has proven to be a huge mistake - one in which I think they realize they had grievously erred.

And of course this stokes the anger of victims and advocates.

The bottom line is that I do not believe for a minute that the Agudah Moetzes is anything but well intentioned. Certainly their sea change about reporting abusers to the police at least after being vetted by rabbis is a welcome change in the right direction from the time they thought they could handle things ‘in house’.

Which brings me to an op-ed by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Ami Magazine and the reaction to it by victim’s advocates. Rabbi Shafran expresses indignation (correctly so in my view) to the way some advocates treated a closed session of rabbis at the last Agudah convention. The session dealt with sex abuse. Although I too questioned the closed door nature of the meeting, I do not for a moment believe there was anything nefarious going on there. I take Rabbi Shafran at his word that this session was designed to deal precisely with the issue of rabbinic participation in the process of vetting accusers. From their perspective of requiring rabbinic approval, they were only trying to forward that goal properly.

Those who were so vehement in their condemnation of the Agudah were wrong in how they protested it. There is no evil intent here. There is only disagreement in how to do it right. To bash the Agudah as if they were doing something sinister is completely wrong and unfair.

I understand the passion. Certainly after reading that e-mail I was talking about. But one has to be fair and not go overboard to bash people who have dedicated their lives to serving the Klal. Yes, I have pretty much the same disagreements with them that advocates do. But to turn that into a venomous attack is outrageous and in my view counter-productive. Hard though it may be for victims and their advocates, there is a right way and a wrong way to disagree. Venomous attacks against well intentioned people is the wrong way.

But there is one thing I do agree with them on about this article. Using an illustration and title (in the above picture) that is reminiscent of the propaganda used by Nazi Germany against the Jewish people. The purpose was to compare the attacks by the advocates against Agudah to the Nazi propagandists of the Holocaust. That crosses a line. It too is an outrageous and venomous attack.

These advocates are not evil. They too are good people. They spend a good deal of their time working on behalf of victims. That some of them get carried away with angry rhetoric may be because of their frustration with what they see as impediments to their goals. Right or wrong about their rhetoric it is not OK to cast them as Nazi propagandists.

I think we would all be a lot better off if we look at the good that each side is doing, appreciate each other’s efforts, and respect our differences even while criticizing them in the hopes of changing some minds and hearts. I truly believe that both sides are working towards the same goal of eradicating the scourge of sex abuse form our world forever! But as always, the devil is in the details.