Friday, February 01, 2013

Exposing Sex Abuse in Charedi England

Rabbi Ephraim Padwa as he appears in the "Dispathces' documentary
Should anyone think that Williamsburg is the only community that deals with sex abuse by protecting the accused and harassing the accuser, they would be wrong.  A documentary on sex abuse in the Charedi world of London makes that pretty clear. Needless to say, Charedim there were not happy with this documentary to say the least.

I don’t know if Rabbi Ephraim Padwa is a Satmar Chasid or not. But it is clear from footage secretly filmed that his approach is pretty much the same as theirs.

In that footage  - a former Charedi who as a child was a victim of abuse met with Rabbi Padwa who is the head of the Charedi organization ‘ The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations’. The victim had a hidden camera that recorded the entire meeting unbeknownst to Rabbi Padwa.

Rabbi Padwa is a man of considerable influence and respect among Charedim. When was asked by the victim whether to report his abuse to the police he was told an unequivocal no. He may not under any circumstances go to the police with these allegations as that would violate the very serious prohibition of Mesirah, informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. 

In a later communication the Union modified that claim saying that there are some circumstances where one would be allowed to do that. But they did not specify when and insisted that the rabbis must have full control over when those circumstances apply in each and every case.

That sound more like damage control than clarification. And in and of itself - troubling enough. The fact is  that Rabbi Padwa did not mention any exceptions and was clearly uncomfortable with getting the police involved in any way. But he didn’t know that others would be watching him. There was no ‘buts’ about it. Mesirah is a very serious sin and the problem of sex abuse is best handled internally by the rabbis themselves.

Mesirah is a very complicated issue. Although some people feel that it still applies in our day even when there is a just society, many Poskim feel that is no longer the case. The Aruch HaShulchan (R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein) says that it is not even the case in a place like the Czarist Russia of his day, where clearly Jews were persecuted.

But not reporting abuse is only half the story. And something Rabbi Padwa did not address. It was however addressed by another Charedi rabbi who is a colleague of Rabbi Padwa. His conscience forced him to come forward with the truth – albeit anonymously for fear of reprisals. He described what happens to those who end up going to the police instead of the rabbis. They become pariahs that are expelled socially from their community.  He describes how this happened when the father of one victim he knows went to the authorities.

This is not unlike what happened in Willaimsburg during the Weberman trial where the victim was called a whore by one of the two Satmar Rebbes; her family lost their business; and has suffered all kinds of indignities.

It is ironic that one of the reasons they are so adamant about keeping abuse secret is to spare their reputations. They present themselves as a pristinely moral community where things like this don’t happen.  With all their efforts to eliminate sexuality from the public square this kind of exposure undermines everything they say they are.

So of course they want to keep it quiet. They see it as amounting to a Chilul HaShem when things like this become public. They want to keep it all quiet so that their reputation as a holy community stands up. Thereby they justify their claims that their modesty rules protects them from these kinds of things.

What they fail to understand – perhaps because their lives are so  isolated from the rest of the world – is that there is no such thing as keeping sex abuse secret anymore. They can no longer keep a lid on it. The media is very good at finding dirt. If there is any to be found- they will find it and broadcast it to the world! Ask thr Catholic Church who treated abuse in their environs the same way Rabbi Padwa and his community does.

But a cover-up that is exposed - is what the real Chilul HaShem is. Especially when it involves the kind of threats that accompany warnings to a victim and their families not to go public. Threats they very clearly carry out if their warnings are not heeded.

In any case the documentary is available on YouTube. I wish I could say I was surprised by it. Unfortunately I wasn’t. It was pretty predictable.

Will this kind of exposure change the way the Charedi world does things? I don’t know. It hasn’t yet. But perhaps with the Weberman verdict and all the negative publicity and documentaries like this one-it will. At least I hope it will.