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Understanding their Pain

Graffiti on a wall in Lisbon depicting a priest chasing two children, denouncing the child abuse that rocked the Catholic Church.

Graffiti on a wall in Lisbon depicting a priest chasing two children, denouncing the child abuse that rocked the Catholic Church.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There were new revelations recently about  the scourge of sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Chicago. From a segment of the PBS Newshour broadcast on January 21st.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the country’s third largest, shielded and protected priests who were accused of sexual abuse for decades. Newly released papers document the actions of 30 priests, nearly half of them deceased, the rest now out of ministry. Victims who had long pressed for more information talked about it at a press conference in Chicago today.

I could not help noticing that the reaction of the Church hierarchy in the person of Cardinal George was almost identical to the response of Orthodox Jewish institutional leaders. It goes something like this: These events happened at a time when things like this were handled differently. We understand the problems now and will handle them differently.

What virtually all of the leaders of these institutions are guilty of is not of the abuse itself. But of how badly they reacted to it. The primary concern has always been – and still is to some extent – to protect their institutions. In the past that often meant keeping things quiet (sweeping them under the rug) and discouraging victims from reporting the abuse to the authorities; to quietly dismiss those abusers from their positions and allowing them to find jobs at other locations that involved being around potential victims.

In the past these leaders often did this without informing potential employers elsewhere about the abuse. This allowed the abusers to continue abusing children in new places The thinking seems to have been, that the problem was solved here. What about other locations? Caveat Emptor. Why did they not report these abusers to the police? Because that would have stigmatized those institutions. Better, they thought, to do things quietly and cover it up.  What about the victims? They’ll get over it.

The problem is that they don’t. Survivors of decades old abuse are treated dismissively. As though their errors could be excused because the times were different then, and a lot of time has passed. After all, they reason, they are mostly all functioning members of society now, why are they bringing up these charges now? Why sue us now?

I have had conversations with survivors and every single one of them tell me that they suffer to this day the after effects of that abuse. This is why lawsuits are being brought in record numbers now. Survivors are still hurting and struggling with their pain.  They live with it constantly and it doesn’t take much to bring them back to the kind of anxiety and pain they felt from the very beginning of their ordeals.

There has been a lot of speculation about whether these lawsuits ought to go forward after so many years. The truth is that I honestly don’t know. But one thing I do know is that one cannot question the sincerity of the survivors. I believe them. They still continue to suffer.

So when any religious leader makes dismissive statements like We didn’t know how to handle it then and things are better now – with little if any reference to the pain survivors still have – they display an almost callousness to the pain. Their focus is on the institution.

I can’t really blame them for wanting to protect their institutions. Many of them are quite worthy and ought to be saved. But whether intentional or not, their callousness is inexcusable. So I can’t really blame survivors for seeking a form of solace via financial compensation.

No one has driven home the fact of durable pain survivors of sex abuse have better than former Lakewood Kollel (Chicago Community Kollel) Avreich, psychologist Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob, PhD – who writes a regular column in Mishpacha Magazine.  He too is one of my heroes. I believe if everyone experienced what he recently did, the culture about sex abuse might change. Here in full is what he said:

Several years ago, when visiting a Jewish community in a different city, I was approached by a young woman in her 30s. I had given a talk earlier in the day on the topic of the abuse of children, and she wanted to talk with me regarding my presentation. Before she could begin explaining, she started to cry, which quickly turned into a deep sobbing that shook her whole body. It was very painful to witness. Eventually, she began to speak softly about her preteen years and the abuse she experienced.

Suffice it to say that her story was horrific. The man who abused her, single, in his 40s, was a frequent guest at her family’s Shabbos table, and a trusted friend of her father’s. She was just 10 years old when it started and it continued for three years, leaving devastation in its wake.

I use the word devastation intentionally because no other word quite captures the breadth and depth of her visible pain. Feelings of shame, self-doubt, guilt, confusion, grief, and intense sadness are some of the emotions she was struggling with. She was quiet for a while and the thought occurred to me that this terrifying period in her life had ended close to 20 years before, and yet the look on her face and the tone of her voice spoke volumes of the horror of that experience.

I waited patiently to see if she would ask me a question, and began to realize that there was more she wanted to say, more she needed to say, and was struggling to be able to express it. I said something like, “It looks like you have something else to add, it’s okay, take your time,” which led to more sobbing that seemed somehow more intense, more filled with sadness and loss than the first set of tears.

Between sobs and trying to catch her breath she continued her story: “Those three years were traumatic and they still fill me with terror and disgust, but what came later was, in many ways, worse.” More silence for a few minutes. It looked like she was trying to build up the courage to say what she needed to say. She finally blurted out, almost shouting the words, “I told them and they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me. My parents, they made light of it and told me to stop being so dramatic, he was probably just being friendly.” And forcing out another sentence: “He abused me for years, he was a monster … but my parents betrayed me. I wanted to die, in fact I did kind of die that day, shutting down, feeling alone in the world, afraid to open up to anyone. If my own parents didn’t believe me, who would?”

When a child is exploited by an adult, he is betrayed. If the abuser is a family member, or rabbi, or camp counselor, or teacher, it’s a bigger betrayal. The closer the person, the more trusted he is, thus making the victim more vulnerable, the deeper the betrayal.

If your child comes to you, and discloses his confusion about someone touching him, your first job is to listen, not judge. And unless you’re 100 percent sure that he’s lying (and it is pretty much impossible to be 100 percent sure), you must believe him. Your job is not to panic, and to fight your own dread, your own fear. Your role is to provide safety while remaining calm, communicating the message that you believe him and that he did nothing wrong, that you love him and will do everything in your power to get him the help he needs to begin the process of healing.

This means no questions like, “Why would he start up with you?” or, “What did you do to attract his attention?” which imply blame. And if you don’t take it seriously, you compound the injury, and the trauma. If a teen comes to a rabbi and he doesn’t believe her, saying something like, “I know that man, he is a good person, you must stop exaggerating” or worse, such as teaching her the laws of lashon hara, it does immeasurable damage, and can destroy her faith in rabbis.

Communities, too, must believe the child and support her and her family during this traumatic period, when she is especially vulnerable and fragile. Any complaint from a child should be thoroughly checked. How can we turn our backs on our most vulnerable members?

All of us know that it is our responsibility to protect our children. We need to protect the betrayed, not betray them.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

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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