Latest update: December 4th, 2012
In separate incidents on the same night two weeks ago, two children in Israel were murdered by adults.
A seven-year-old boy in the town of Bnei Ayish was found dead under a bed and a Jerusalem resident allegedly murdered his baby daughter by smashing her head repeatedly on the floor following an argument with his wife. Reportedly, members of their chassidic community were aware the father was a risk but said this was being “managed” within the community.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., as Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Dr. Benzion Twerski noted in a Jewish Press op-ed article (“Abuse Survivors: Please Don’t Suffer Alone,” Nov. 27), “the recent tragic passing of yet another young person in [Brooklyn] may have stemmed at least in part from the trauma of childhood abuse.”
For those who may still have harbored any doubt, child abuse – both in Israel and in the American Jewish community – is a deadly reality.
In their op-ed, Rabbi Horowitz and Dr. Twerski encouraged abuse victims and survivors to seek therapeutic help and intervention. While absolutely spot on, the article confined itself to advising past victims to seek out therapy; it did not touch on the related and still contentious issue of current victims and those who suspect child abuse reporting any such cases to law enforcement authorities. Advertisement
Tragically, and for a number of reasons, this is an especially severe problem in Orthodox communities.
Orthodox children who have been sexually abused likely lack the vocabulary (not just literally the words, but also the concepts) to express to an adult what has happened to them. A concept such as pedophilia is almost certainly never explained to an Orthodox child; neither is the blamelessness of a pedophile’s victims. An overwhelming emotional and moral confusion can numb young abuse victims for decades – indeed, the majority of victims never disclose.
And if the child does report an incident to an Orthodox adult – parent, teacher, etc. – that adult, unfortunately, is liable to take such a complaint less than seriously, as awareness of the severe nature and consequences of child abuse is still severely lacking in frum communities.
Even if the complaint is not ignored or dismissed, concerns about the reputation of the child (shidduch) and the child’s family (shanda), refusal to believe the worst about the alleged perpetrator (who usually is a close acquaintance of the victim and a member of the same Orthodox community), reticence to make public any “private” or sexual matters, and fear of ostracism and harassment from the community will all be factors in not reporting the child’s claims any further.
And even if the adult does have the courage to report the allegation, chances are it will be reported to a rabbi rather than directly to the police.
In 2003, a leading halachic authority issued a groundbreaking psak requiring rabbonim to first ascertain the veracity of the claims of abuse and if they “know the allegations are certainly true” and that the perpetrator cannot be controlled, the matter should be referred to the police.
If, however, there are no “raglaim ledavar” (grounds for suspicion) and the allegations are a figment of the alleged victim’s imagination, or stem from a vendetta, the case should not be passed over to the authorities. The psak cautioned that reporting someone to the police can put a falsely accused perpetrator in a position of “choosing death over life.”
This psak has been helpful in highlighting to rabbonim and communities the need for proven cases of pedophilia to be referred to the police; for generations such a handing-over of Jews to secular authorities was understood to be forbidden.
However, this psak clearly puts religious authorities in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding where an allegation falls on the scale between “no grounds for suspicion” (which should not be reported) and “certain knowledge” that the perpetrator is guilty and is not controllable in the future (which does require reporting). There is a gapingly wide range of gray between these two cases – and it is in that middle area where most child abuse allegations are situated.
Rabbonim have therefore been required to address allegations of child abuse as if they were alleged civil offenses (in which batei din are, of course, fully qualified and entitled to rule), rather than alleged criminal assaults (in which no responsible bet din would involve itself).
A further cause for concern is that community rabbis balance a wider range of interests than solely rooting out the guilty and protecting their victims; they have a number of community interests to protect and their concerns about damage control can weigh heavily against the pure pursuit of justice.
In practice, that psak, while a breakthrough in requiring some Jewish pedophiles to be handed over by rabbonim to state authorities, is otherwise not practically helpful in the majority of child abuse cases.
There have been various attempts to create bridging arrangements in order to address the gap between this halachic position and statutory reporting requirements.
In some American Orthodox communities, “task forces” have been established, or are in the process of being established, to liaise between community leadership and state authorities in cases of alleged child abuse.
Here in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, there has been a first-ever meeting between local rabbonim and police and state child-protection services in an effort to improve cooperation on child abuse allegations.
And an increasing number of rabbonim (such as Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Yosef Blau and indeed Rabbi Horowitz) have publicly stated that the standard response to any allegations of child abuse must be to immediately refer to state authorities.
In addition to the strictly law-and-order aspects of reporting abuse to state authorities, doing so enables professional therapists to legally and ethically administer the therapy Rabbi Horowitz and Dr. Twerski have called for. Further, in most states and now in Israel victims of child abuse are entitled to subsidized therapy, making this critical but expensive treatment affordable.
While reporting specific abuse allegations to the police is crucial if we wish to prevent future tragedies, more is required. There needs to be concerted and widespread cooperation with the authorities so that the community can obtain the critical information necessary to effectively monitor and control both suspected and known child abusers.
With the price now so tragically high, saving our children from physical violence and sex abuse must become the Jewish community’s first priority.
About the Author: David Morris is a child protection activist, founder of the SafeKids program, and founder and volunteer chairman of Lema'an Achai, the community social services charity, in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel. He writes at tzedek-tzedek.blogspot.com.
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