Bloomberg vs. the Rabbis

The New York Sun
May 14, 2012

The latest engagement in the campaign of the secular state to undercut religious authorities and drive back their sphere of influence has erupted in New York over how to handle child molestation cases that occur in the city's Orthodox Jewish communities. Mayor Bloomberg has just joined a chorus of Democratic politicians asserting that persons who suspect misbehavior should go straight to the police rather than their rabbis. The mayor, according to the New York Times, wants "any abuse allegations" to be "brought to Law enforcement." The newspaper suggests that he is uncomfortable with those who wish first to check with their rabbis.

In entering this contretemps with this advice the mayor has made an error of judgment. His statement was given to the Times in the context of a story it issued Friday on how the district attorney at Brooklyn, Charles Hynes, has been handling molestation cases. The mayor, according to the Times, has joined those who criticize the D.A. for failing to object to the position of the Agudath Israel of America, a major organization that represents fervently religious Jews. Its policy is, as characterized by the Times, that members of its community see a rabbi before reporting allegations of sexual misconduct to the police.

No one, least of all Orthodox Jews, denies that child molestation cases occur in the Jewish communities, just as they do in other religious and secular populations. The role of the rabbi when consulted in cases of suspected abuse, the executive vice president of the Aguda, David Zwiebel, wrote to the Times the other day, is "not to dissuade the individual from reporting to the secular authorities, but simply to ascertain that the suspicion meets a certain threshold of credibility." No doubt this was the point Rabbi Zwiebel made to Mr. Hynes when, over the summer, the two met on this head.

According to the New York Times, the rabbi told the D.A. of the Aguda's policy that members of the community first consult with a rabbi before going to the secular authorities. The D.A., according to the account in the Times, told the Aguda's president that he "wouldn't interfere with someone's decision to consult with his or her rabbi about allegations of sexual abuse." But, the Times continued, the Rabbi also told the Aguda's president that he "would expect that these allegations of criminal conduct be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities."

This seems to have driven the Times nearly to distraction. It quotes Rabbi Zwiebel as reckoning that the religious duty first to consult a rabbi "outranks," as the Times paraphrased the rabbi, "even New York's mandatory reporting law." It quotes Rabbi Zwiebel as saying: "The rabbis' consensus is go to a rabbi, because of the stringency of the matter on both sides of the equation, both the Jewish legal implications and because you can destroy a person's life with a false report." The Times reports the sentiment was taken issue with by the leading Democratic candidates for mayor.

"Our first concern is with victims of crime, especially potential victims of child abuse, and the first call should be to the appropriate law enforcement authorities," Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, was quoted by the Times as saying. What the Times quoted the mayor's spokesman, Marc LaVorgna, as saying, is "Any abuse allegations," the mayor said through a spokesman, "should be brought to law enforcement, who are trained to assess their accuracy and act appropriately."

This strikes us as a conceit. The notion that secular authorities are wiser, or better trained, than religious authorities looks hubristic against the three millennia of case law that line the walls of the great rabbinic studies. Within the Jewish communities, if not in City Hall, the rabbis are regarded with enormous respect. No doubt that rabbis can make mistakes. But so can the secular courts and caseworkers. Let us just say that if allegations of assault by Jerry Sandusky of Penn State on a boy in a shower had been reported to a rabbi, his alleged years of predation would have been cut far shorter than they were.

The Times seems obsessed with the idea that rabbis — and by extension, other clergy — might have a role here. But we don't know any religious authority — least of all Rabbi Zweibel, himself a lawyer and a veteran of one of the city's most distinguished law firms — who is suggesting that any Jewish person or anyone else commit misprision of felony,* which is failing to report a crime. Our impression is that the rabbis would dispute the power of the law of misprision to prohibit their right to exercise freely the rabbinical authority that is so basic to the Jewish religion. That right is protected under the same amendment to the Constitution — the First — that protects newspapers like the Times and Mayor Bloomberg's own private news service from investigating felonious behavior that hasn't yet been reported to the police.

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* "18 USC § 4 - MISPRISION OF FELONY Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."