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A Time for Zero Tolerance and a Time for Tolerance

When it comes to victims of abuse the overriding approach should be one of compassion and understanding. But school officials' mishandling of a situation should not automatically result in termination.
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I have never been sexually abused. I therefore have no real way of identifying with the pain suffered by victims of abuse. All I can do is take the word of the victim about the pain they suffer. And of course observe the tragic consequences when the depression a victim falls into as a result of both the abuse the reaction to them by their community. Those consequences are sometimes so severe that they end up in suicide for the victim.

Recent events here in Chicago have once again resulted in a resurfacing of this issue. I am not going to name names. Full disclosure requires me to say that I know and admire some of the people involved. But I am not in a position to interview them. Nor am I in a position to judge them since I do not know all the details of the case. But based on what has surfaced so far in the public square I feel the need to speak out so as to be consistent in my approach to sex abuse.

Here is what I know so far.

An 18 year old female victim who is a student at a religious school here in Chicago posted on her Facebook page about the sex abuse she suffered. When officials at the school discovered this, they asked her in a very insensitive way to remove it as that violated the school’s code for use of social media. She was severely reprimanded for this violation and unless she removed the ‘offensive’ content from her Facebook page she faced a possible expulsion.

The outrage from some in the “victims’ advocates” community against officials of the school came fast and furious… defending the victim’s right to express her pain in any way she saw fit. They condemned the official response of the school. Some are even asking heads to roll. That is the way some see it – calling it a no tolerance policy. I call it ‘slash and burn’ policy.

I completely understand a no tolerance policy when it comes to sex abuse and fully support it. The question arises when such a policy is extended to secondary concerns – important though they may be.

Should there be a slash and burn policy in every case where an official errs in how they handle the pain of a victim? Should the welfare of a fine institution with exceptional leaders be destroyed because someone made a mistake? Should the career and good name of someone who has contributed so much – and many decades of service – be instantly destroyed because of a few poorly chosen words – hurtful though they may have been?

I don’t think that’s right.

Personally, I do not think the response was appropriate. There is little doubt that victim was hurt beyond anyone’s imagination by the abuse she received. And she was once again hurt here. Based on what is public knowledge about this case – this should not have been done. The response seemed cruel to me.

In defense of the institution, they have every right to set a policy for the use of social media and demand that it be followed. And I fully support a school’s right to carry out whatever consequences they spell out in their literature for violations of that policy.

On the other very legitimate hand, doing so in this case – especially the way in which it was done – was using very poor judgment in my view. A school’s right to carry out its policies does not mean they can’t use discretion when it is warranted. When it comes to victims of abuse, there is no better time to use that discretion. What was warranted here was compassion.

I do not fault the school for telling the victim that she should not have used social media to express her pain. This does not stifle her from expressing it. All it does is limit who will have access to it. No matter how much pain a victim suffers, it does not give them the right to use a shotgun approach to disseminating it to the world. There are other – far better ways to do that. Like speaking with parents; or counselors who are experienced in these issues; or a sympathetic teacher; of even a group of intimate friends.

But since I am not personally a victim, I am still loathe to criticize any victim for expressing their pain in any way they choose. As long as it does not hurt innocent people in the process. If for example she put into the public sphere torrid details of her abuse for all to read including children – how does that help her? These are the kind of details you save for the police and the courts when prosecuting the abuser. Or the kind of details you share with mental health professionals.

All of these issues can be resolved with compassion and sympathy in my view. That was the real problem here. It was not so much what they were asking her to do, but they way in which they asked her to do it.

I can understand why the reaction by the school was so harsh. But in my view the school’s reaction was still inappropriate. When it comes to victims of abuse the overriding approach should be one of compassion and understanding. The school could have accomplished its goals without seeming to be so insensitive.

That said, I would in no way call for any disciplinary actions against any of the officials in the school. They are all good people. The only thing I would ask is that an apology to the student be issued for the insensitive remarks made to to her. Furthermore – although I think the school is within their rights to ask the student to refrain from using social media to express her pain while enrolled at the school, I would urge them not to pursue any sanctions against her for doing it.

Unless the officials themselves or one of their own children were sexually abused – no one there knows what she went through – or what she is still going through. Compassion dictates that sometimes one must look the other way.

But at the same time I reject the slash and burn attitude I so often see expressed by some victims advocates. This attitude helps no one.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah, where this blog was originally published under the title, “A Sex Abuse Victim’s Challenge on Facebook,” March 1, 2013.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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