Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mesirah and Making the Right Call on Sex Abuse

A young 9 year old boy came home from school and told his parents that his Rebbe had touched him in an inappropriate way.

The parents were stunned. They have known this man as a charismatic and very popular teacher for many years. Every single other day school in the city would ‘kill’ to add him to their faculty. His talents have inspired even mediocre students to excel in their studies and inspired them religioulsy. Former students testify to that and have gone into Chinuch because of it. In short, he is the role model for Mechanchim.

This Rebbe also has a family of his own his oldest daughter is about to embark on Shiddach dating. He has never been accused of anything like this before.  But even though they are convinced of this man’s innocence, they know that their 9 year old is not given to fantasies such as these. If he said something happened. It happened.

So they decided to press him to see if perhaps there was something else going on here. They asked him to explain in detail what had happened. He was embarrassed and very reluctant to do that. But after being assured by his parents that it was the right thing to do - he went on to describe in graphic detail what had happened.

He added that this was not the first time it happened. His Rebbe who he had gotten very close to had convinced him that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing… and that this very special bond they developed would be their little secret. That was one of the great things about this Rebbe. He famously developed special relationships with many of his students.

The parents were horrified. But as religious Jews they did not immediately report the abuse to authorities. They first went to their beloved and trusted Rav. He would be the honest broker… and surely after speaking to their son and hearing the same thing they did he would urge them to immediately report it to the police.

After listening to the boy’s graphic description of the abuse he too was incredulous. He also knew and appreciated this Mechanech and had spent many an occasion with him discussing various issues related to his job. Based on all those experiences this Rav too considered him a role model for Chincuh. But his reaction was a bit different than that of the parents. His experiences with that Mechanech lead him to suspect that the child might just be lying, despite his obvious discomfort and sincerity - even though he had never lied about anything like this before.  

Fearing that a good man’s reputation would be ruined and that his family would suffer untold pain -  he decided to err on the side of what he believed to be caution and not allow the parents to report the abuse to the authorities. He determined this was not a case of Raglayim L’Davar – credible evidence.

Telling the authorities would then be Mesirah based on the testimony of a child. He felt confident that he did the right thing – saving this wonderful Mechanech from the devastation and untold pain that he and his family would surely have suffered. He still teaches today.

The problem is that a victim of abuse was telling the truth. His parents who knew their child better than anyone else believed him. They were sure of it. But they could do absolutely nothing about it. Three days later the boy committed suicide.

This story is fiction. However - except for the act of suicide it is a common one told by many victims. And suicides are not unheard of by victims of abuse.

The Rabbi in this story is not an evil person. He chose to side with his gut feeling that this long time, well known, and successful Mechanech could not possibly do what he was accused of.  But he had no training in how to investigate the truth of an allegation. He just said “Couldn’t be!” ...and decided that it should not be reported.

This brings me to an article in yesterday’s Forward. Apparently Rabbi Dovid Zweibel (pictured above) has spilled the beans about the Agudah’s real reason for requiring every allegation of abuse to be first vetted by a Rabbi. From the Forward:

Central to the issue for Agudath is mesirah, the prohibition in Jewish law against informing on a fellow Jew to the authorities. This religious principle flourished in Eastern Europe in centuries past, when Jews lived in ghettoes ruled by hostile, often anti-Semitic governments. But Zwiebel said the notion that mesirah doesn’t apply in modern-day democracies, where there is a fair criminal justice system, is “a minority view” among top rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox world. “The majority view is, there is a prohibition against mesirah,” Zwiebel said.

So the real issue for Agudah is not that justice will be served if rabbis are consulted first. It is that a Jew not be reported to the police even if he is guilty. Because that constitutes Mesirah.  It seems that the only way they would allow reporting it to the authorities is if there was a clear and present danger. But if that danger has somehow disappeared (for example when an abuser has been barred from being around children and monitored by the community) abusers go scot free. I find that unconscionable.

Rav Elyashiv had been the hero of both victims and their advocates with his directive that if there is credible evidence of ongoing abuse that it should be reported to authorities  – and that it was not considered Mesirah. There is apparently another aspect of Rav Elyashiv’s psak that is not so widely quoted. But it was this time by Rabbi Dovid Zweibel who (along with Rabbi Avi Shafran) was interviewed for this article:

(He) read in Hebrew from an edict issued last year by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a widely revered talmudic authority based in Israel. In the excerpt, the 102-year-old Elyashiv warned that a “bitter” student could wrongly accuse a teacher of abuse, putting that teacher in “a situation where he would rather be dead than alive.”

Asked how a rabbi could ascertain whether a child is lying, Shafran said, “There are certain subtle [signs] in a child that show whether the child is fantasizing.” He said these indicators included a child’s tone of voice or specific things he or she says.

Offering the hypothetical example of a parent who came to a rabbi after his child told him she had been abused by a teacher, Zwiebel said the rabbi’s decision on whether the parent can go to law enforcement “depends on whether your child has the habit of fantasizing. It depends on whether your child and the teacher have had run-ins in the past. It may require some level of nuance and investigation [by a rabbi] that go beyond the mere allegation.”

In other words the benefit of the doubt always to go to the accused. Who determines that doubt? Not a professional but a rabbi. What are some of the parameters for determining whether evidence is credible? Subtle signs; tone of voice;  nuance; a habit of fantasizing...

Even if these are legitimate ‘tells’ of whether an accusation is credible, is a Rav the best person to determine it?  Or is it a mental health professional specially trained to do it with years of experience dealing exclusively in sex crimes. Can a Rav honestly say he will make a completely unbiased evaluation if he knows the accused socially and is predisposed to believe him?

If the accused is a community member in good standing the benefit of the doubt that the Rav subconsciousnessly accrues to him multiplies. What about the parents who know their child best and believe him? Sorry. Not good enough to report to the authorities. It will ruin the man’s life. What if he’s innocent? 

I’m sorry but I don’t understand this rationale. It is grossly unfair to the victim. And it allows for pre-existing biases to favor the accused – even if it is unintentional and made with the best of intentions.

By following this path, victims feel like they have been abused again. Only this time by the religious leaders that they once respected and by the community to which they belong.

Is there any question as to why so many people who have gone OTD were victims of sex abuse? Is it any wonder they feel rejected by their community? Is it any wonder that many of them become clinically depressed and on a downward spiral that can lead to anti social behavior, alcoholism, drugs, and even suicide? How many victims like this need to be created before their voices are heard and the right thing is done by them?