Amid all the recent bad news about our child sex abuse problem in New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere, permit me to be so bold as to suggest there is a glimmer of good news and hope.
The latest situation in Baltimore is, once again, a textbook example of our communal failure to protect children from predators who have insidiously invaded our yeshivas, synagogues, and even our homes where they tutor children. Earlier this month, Phil Jacobs, executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, reported that a yeshiva principal essentially lived a double-life as a sexual abuser of hundreds of children.
The principal, who died in 1989, was also a synagogue rabbi, guidance counselor, and yeshiva dorm counselor. His victims, some now in their 60s, regularly meet in support groups where they wonder how their lives would have been different had they not been abused.
Three victims went public, identified themselves by name, and spoke to Mr. Jacobs. One victim, now a yoga instructor in Florida, began to explore various Eastern faiths, was briefly married to a non-Jewish woman, and raised his child non-Jewish. ”I am basically anti-Semitic,” he says. ”I like Jews, but I just need to stay away from them…. There’s always been a lot of fear and anger in my life that comes as a result of [the rabbi’s] actions. There’s never a time that passes that I don’t think about him. There’s anger and there’s fear.”
This devastating article has, at long last, inspired a communal Jewish response. The Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore issued a public letter the day the article appeared. The rabbis’ letter is a remarkable mea culpa, and I will quote one key passage at length:
The damage that abuse can cause is devastating and potentially life altering; it commonly ruins an individual’s sense of self, their ability to trust others, and their ability to engage in a healthy intimate relationship. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus amongst mental health professionals serving the observant community that many of our “teens-at-risk” issues were generated by incidents of abuse. The risks of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and other self-destructive behaviors are all increased dramatically by abuse.
As such it is already well established by our own poskim that an abuser is to be considered a rodef (literally, a “pursuer”), effectively poised to destroy innocent lives and, therefore, virtually all means may be used to stop him and bring him to justice. Communities and day schools – with the blessing of Gedolei Yisroel – have encouraged and facilitated the reporting of these crimes to the local authorities, who are most equipped to investigate and prosecute these complex claims.
In the past, many mistakes were made in handling these situations. Abusers were often not recognized for what they were, as it was too difficult to believe that otherwise good people could do such things, nor was it sufficiently appreciated what damage such acts could cause. It was often thought that if the abuser was spoken to or warned, and perhaps moved to a different environment, he would never do these things again. In responding this way many terrible mistakes were made and tragic consequences resulted. We have seen too often the immediate or eventual failure of these “behind-the-scenes agreements” to keep the perpetrators away from others. Naïveté and a lack of understanding of the insidious nature of these perpetrators have allowed the toll of victims to rise. These failures haunt us – but they also motivate us to respond more effectively and wisely in the future.
Could the latest case in Baltimore have been avoided? And the cases in Brooklyn, Lakewood, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other locales where abusers, masquerading as rabbis, teachers, and camp counselors, have been known to prey?
The remarkable answer is yes – through the rule of American law, which is consistent with our own cherished Jewish values of exercising extraordinary efforts to preserve human life. Lo ta’amod al dam ra’echa – Do not stand upon the blood of your brother (Leviticus 19:16). This Torah verse requires that we not close our eyes to a drowning boy or girl but jump in with a life preserver.
Where the masses are affected, there is a principle in halacha that great precautions are taken to preserve health and safety. The Rambam rules that dangerous businesses be placed outside a city. Perhaps we can learn, kal v’chamor, how much more so is this true for protecting children from danger in our schools, synagogues, and homes.