Monday, November 14, 2016

Sexual Abuse – Knowledge is Power

Dr. Shira Berkovits
There was a fascinating interview on a Jewish radio program that dealt with sexual abuse. Although much of what was said on the show is by now rather well known, I found additional clarity on this program that is worth sharing beyond the show’s regular audience. Of particular importance was his interview with Dr. Shira Berkovits.

It appears that it isn’t a coincidence that sexual predators are often highly respected members of a community. The old stereotype of stranger-danger is no longer the prototype sexual abuser.  Studies have shown that are most often family members, family friends, or acquaintances. They can be anyone: a parent, a sibling, an uncle, a teacher, a principal, a rabbi, a rebbe, a camp counselor, a mentor, an older friend…  anyone in a position of power over the child! The US Department of Justice says that 93% of children that are sexually abused – are abused by people they know and trust. (34% of abusers are family members and 60% are acquaintances.)

Dr. Berkovits is a noted expert on this subject that consults for the OU. She was a guest on Dovid Lichtenstein’s radio show Headlines (11/12/16). What she said surprised me somewhat. Although it probably shouldn’t have looking at it in hindsight.

Sexual predators are more than just conveniently located for their nefarious purposes. It appears that they work at establishing themselves as leaders in the community. People that often contribute greatly in many ways. People that the community looks up to.  People that are seen as a truly good people. People that appear as Ehrlich as can be. Strict in their Mitzvah observance and major contributors to their community with both time and money.

Dr. Berkovits spoke of an abuser she spoke to that told her it was his strategy to be the most generous, charitable person in the community - doing the most Chesed in the community
He wanted to make sure that his reputation was so great, that if accusations abuse ever came out, he would be the last person anyone would suspect. ‘How can someone so wonderful ever do something like that?’ Cannot be!

How do we then detect a potential abuser if they appear to be so honorable? Dr. Berkovits said that we do not focus on reputation. We focus on behavior. These people use a technique called grooming. They are very nice to their victims before they cross the line. They may shower them with gifts, and spend inordinate amounts of time with them in ways that endear the victim to the abuser. These people look for ways to be alone with their victims. They may offer free babysitting. Or seek to tutor your children for free. On the surface they seem to be wonderful opportunities. When people are overly focused on spending time with your children – more than they are on themselves - that is a red flag.

This grooming process not only on the child, but on the parents and the community. Sexual abuse does not a suddenly. It is gradual. At first the relationship is innocent. Proper and above board. As the relationship progresses and trust is gained, they start crossing lines. They will try and get a child alone and spend a lot of time with them. Then the inappropriate subjects come up where they may want to have a conversation about Shomer Negiah; or wasting seed.

Sexual abusers tend to have typical and normal profiles that blend in with the community, They are usually married, have heterosexual relationships, and are educated.

The adverse consequences are considerable and statistically significant. Survivors that have been abused even once have a much greater incidence of suicide, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and even physical health risks like heart disease, cancer, and dying younger. One experienced worker in the field, Tzvi Gluck, said that of the 100 suicides that take place in the Orthodox Jewish community per year, the vast majority are victims of sexual abuse or molestation!

One of the difficult problems is in the area of disclosure. May children simply don’t disclose the abuse – because they like to the abuser or don’t want to upset their parents. When they do disclose it is often accidental or tentative to see what the parental reaction would be. They fear the reaction by the parent. And with good reason. What parent would react with calm when he has just been told by his – even tentatively – that he has been sexually molested or abused?!

Dr. Berkovits was asked what is the correct response from a parent should be to a child that just disclosed abuse? For one thing don’t add to his sense of victimization by saying things that reinforce his sense of victim-hood.. Instead build up his sense of confidence by saying how well he handled the abuse and how proud you are of him for handling it that way.

There are four rules Dr. Berkowitz said that should guide a parent on this issue.

1.  A child should never be left alone with an adult –no matter how close of beloved that adult is - in a closed room that is locked. Just as in the Halachos of Yichud being alone with a member of the opposite sex should be interruptible and observable, so too should this be the case with an adult and a child.

2. Model this behavior so that you are never alone with any child without the permission of the parents or with someone else in the room.

3. Teach children to never allow others to touch their body parts and use clear language to identify which body parts you are talking about. And that if it ever happens – they should come and tell them immediately. Exceptions like Dr. visits should be done with a parent in the room and it should be made clear it is OK under those circumstances.

4. No secrets. A parent should tell a child that if an adult tells a child to keep secret – he should tell the parent immediately!

Dr. Berkowitz ended her interview by heartily endorsing Rabbi Yakov Horowitz's book, Let's Stay Safe authored by Bracha Goetz.

Rabbi Aharon Sorscher (Shas Illuminated)
Post script: A while ago, there was an incident where the son of a Lakewood Talmid Chacham was abused by his camp counselor that was also a Rebbe in a Lakewood school. The rabbinic establishment told this Talmid Chacham to keep incident quiet and to let the rabbis of his community deal with him. The abuser violated the conditions that were given to him to not report  him to the authorities. The Talmid Chacham then reported him to the authorities. 

For this he and his family were harassed by members of his community and even vilified by one highly respected rabbinic personality. Ultimately he left town to settle in Detroit where he now resides.

The identity of this Talmid Chacham was not public at the time. But he has come out publicly to tell his story. His name is Rabbi Aharon Sorscher. He can be heard on Headlines (11/5/16). It is worthwhile listening to his story, and his advice.