web analytics
November 24, 2014 / 2 Kislev, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
IDC Herzliya Campus A Day on Campus

To mark IDC Herzliya’s 20th anniversary, we spent a day following Prof. Uriel Reichman, IDC’s founder and president, and Jonathan Davis, VP for External Relations, around its delightful campus.



Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

Rush To Judgment

Helmreich-012513

This much we know: as soon as the story broke last month that a former teacher at a well-known Jewish educational institution stood accused of abusing students there decades ago, the teacher’s life changed forever. His employers saw it (he was immediately suspended from his current job), his friends, family and associates would soon learn of it, and anyone who searches the web could now forever find it. His fate was sealed.

What did it take for the newspapers to render such an ultimate and irreparable sentence? Check the articles that broke the story and you’ll find the startling answer: one accuser. That’s right – for the teacher, unlike a former principal also named in the article, a single claim was all it took to print his name, photograph and the repugnant details of the allegation. One paragraph even recounted the sordid tale as fact, without qualifications such as “the former student claimed.”

The “former student,” unlike the teacher he accused, remained anonymous.

This is not a defense of the teacher. Nor is it a denial of the accuser’s claim, or his sincerity. The teacher may be guilty, and if so it is an unspeakably horrible crime – as is any attempt to cover it up. And if he is guilty, his victim has a right to immediate and immeasurable redress.

But the point here is about something else: the standard of evidence used to support such a public charge, one that is as damning as any courtroom verdict – and far more so than most.

As any adolescent knows, criminal verdicts tend to require much more corroboration than this. The reasoning is almost as familiar: if we irretrievably deprive someone of his place in society, we had better get ironclad proof, beyond a reasonable doubt. It should take nothing less to destroy someone.

No similar standard has ever been applied to the press, however. One reason, perhaps, is that accusations in the media, unlike courtroom verdicts, are not final – they can be challenged in the same court of public opinion. So one source may often be good enough.

Except here. In the special case of sexual abuse of minors, the mere appearance of the charge will finish someone, tainting him forever. Would you hire or associate with an accused sex offender? Would you give him the benefit of the doubt? The revulsion evoked by the crime itself spreads to the mere allegation. Publication becomes the ultimate sentence.

That is not to say news stories should carry the same burden of proof as criminal conviction, which is very high. It is only to suggest that there should be some standard of evidence, rather than the lowest imaginable: a single anonymous accuser. Reputable newspapers used to take pains to corroborate such allegations with at least someone else’s similar claims, or independent evidence.

Not so for the teacher whose one accuser chose to remain anonymous. Yet his name and picture were splayed in prominent black and white, and subsequent reports lumped him together with the other educator whose numerous accusers included some who were named, making it seem as though many students had accused them both.

It may turn out that multiple eyewitnesses will step up and confirm the lone, anonymous accusation. But that would hardly change the fact that some newspapers stood ready to ruin him either way, with scandalously thin evidence at the time.

It isn’t always this easy. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have campaigned vigorously for the rights of accused sex offenders to a fair hearing, and they have taken their cause to the press as well.

But you won’t find those activist voices in the present drama. Nor did we hear them during the recent Nechemya Weberman trial, in which a chassidic man was convicted on one alleged victim’s testimony. In that case, the defense even showed she had reason to despise the accused (he had reportedly videotaped her and her paramour and showed it to her parents).

The Weberman case should have been a cause célèbre of liberal due process champions. The defendant was unappealing, having indisputably done at least some disgraceful things (not least among them counseling youngsters without a license and breaking their confidences). The district attorney was under pressure to convict sex offenders from the defendant’s community. And the evidence was thin. There was, in short, a high risk of a questionable verdict – precisely the danger that due-process champions most fear.

But they were silent. Why? One possible explanation is that Weberman and the two educators referred to above are not fashionable darlings of civil rights activists. Men associated with insular, conservative and male-dominated institutions – be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim – are just not the types that due process advocates rush to embrace.

Moreover, Orthodox institutions can be tempting targets to some Jewish newspapers, in particular, for yet another reason: they seem powerful, while in reality they pose almost no threat to the publications that expose them, largely because they lie outside the mainstream Jewish establishment that has close ties to Jewish communal newspapers. With such targets, an investigative reporter can present himself deceptively as a dragon slayer while remaining, as it were, completely fireproof.

Of course, not every journalist will destroy someone with such chilling trigger-happiness. But it remains a distinct possibility, as long as sex abuse coverage is a safe haven against evidentiary standards. The two Orthodox educators may have been the targets of the day. And for all we know, they could well be guilty. But under the new “one-source-and-you’re-it” standard of proof, the innocent will sooner or later suffer the same fate.

About the Author: Jeff Helmreich, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, is author of a forthcoming study titled “Reasonable Doubts and Doubtable Reasons: Where Jury Instructions Go Wrong.” This article originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in The Long Island Jewish World.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Rush To Judgment”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
View from a section of the Old City of Jerusalem.
2 Jews Stabbed by Arab Terrorists in Old City of Jerusalem
Latest Indepth Stories
Lewis-112114-Group

“We don’t just care for the children; we make sure they have the best quality of life.”

Jerusalem_engraving_by William Miller after H Warren

“Why do people get complacent with the things they’re told?”

David Ben-Gurion publicly pronounces the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Arab opposition to a Jewish State of any size was made known by word and deed in the form of terror

beta-israel2

Operation Moses: First time in history that non-blacks came to Africa to free blacks from oppression

As Arabs murder and maim Jews, Jordan’s leaders bark the blood libel of “Israeli aggression.”

Perhaps attacking a terrorist’s legacy broadly and publicly would dissuade others from terrorism?

R’ Aryeh yelled “Run, I’ll fight!” Using a chair against terrorists to buy time so others could flee

Riot started when Muslim students wore the Pal. kaffiyeh and Druze students demanded them removed

The “Media” didn’t want us to know what a kind, giving, loving young woman Dalia was.

A “Palestine” could become another Lebanon, with many different factions battling for control.

Maimonides himself walked and prayed in the permissible areas when he visited Eretz Yisrael in 1165

Having a strong community presence at the polls shows our elected officials we care about the issues

Israel’s Temple Mount policy prefers to blames the Jews-not the attackers-for the crisis.

When Islam conquered the Holy Land, it made its capital in Ramle of all places, not in Jerusalem.

I joined the large crowd but this time it was more personal; my cousin Aryeh was one of the victims.

Terrorists aren’t driven by social, economic, or other grievances, rather by a fanatical worldview.

More Articles from Jeff Helmreich
Helmreich-012513

This much we know: as soon as the story broke last month that a former teacher at a well-known Jewish educational institution stood accused of abusing students there decades ago, the teacher’s life changed forever. His employers saw it (he was immediately suspended from his current job), his friends, family and associates would soon learn of it, and anyone who searches the web could now forever find it. His fate was sealed.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/rush-to-judgment/2013/01/23/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: