By Rebecca Dube (The Forward)
Published June 03, 2009, issue of June 12, 2009
A government-funded video made by one of New York's largest Orthodox social service agencies — touted as its guide for dealing with child sexual abuse — makes no mention of abuse as a crime to be reported to police.
Critics say the video raises questions about Ohel Children's Home and Family Services, which is heavily supported by taxpayers and deeply involved in the Brooklyn district attorney's efforts surrounding child sexual abuse in ultra-traditional Orthodox Jewish communities. Some Orthodox leaders, those critics say, including those at Ohel, have tried wrongly to handle sexual abuse within the community, excluding secular law enforcement authorities — leading to abuse being covered up and cases of pedophiles remaining free to molest more children.
"The only way to begin dealing with this issue is to begin reporting any incidents of sexual abuse directly to the authorities," said Lonnie Soury, spokesman for Survivors for Justice, a group of Orthodox sexual abuse survivors. "Any organization that advocates anything but that is doing so at the expense of children's health."
The Ohel DVD calls the phenomenon of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community a shande, meaning a scandal or shame, and urges victims and their families to seek counseling. It warns schools that they are responsible "to do everything, by all means," about the abuse. And it instructs parents to "do whatever you can to make sure that your child is never put into that position again."
"What we want to do is evoke action," declares Ohel CEO David Mandel at the video's conclusion.
But the word "police" is not spoken once during the 10-minute video, titled "Ignorance Is Not Bliss." Nor is sexual abuse ever described as a criminal act. None of the speakers suggests calling 911, city or state child welfare services, or any other secular authority. The DVD, produced in 2004 and updated in 2007, according to its copyright notice, is freely distributed as a resource for survivors, parents, educators and community leaders.
The Brooklyn-based Ohel, a leading social services agency serving the Jewish community, defends the video.
"This specific video, 'Ignorance Is Not Bliss,' which was produced some eight years ago, is not about the logistics of how to report, or who to report to," said Ohel spokesman Derek Saker, who responded to questions from the Forward in an e-mail. "Rather it was developed as an educational and informational tool for the community, to raise awareness of such shocking abuse, communicate an understanding of what such abuse is, how it affects so many, and its consequences on victims and families."
Mandel refers regularly to the DVD as a resource for people who want to know what to do about child sexual abuse; most recently, in a full-page advertisement published May 13 in The Jewish Week, the organization listed watching the video as a "practical suggestion" for community members who want to take action against abuse.
The video begins with testimony from survivors of child sexual abuse and the mothers of two victims, describing the devastating impact of the abuse. The presentation then segues into various community leaders explaining why it is important not to shame sexual abuse survivors but to bring their stories out into the light and stop sexual predators.
Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, a highly respected rosh yeshiva at the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, says in the video, "For victims, I would say that it is their duty... and a mitzvah, to go and reveal their stories."
But the video never specifies to whom the victims should reveal their stories, or what responsibility adults have to report suspected abuse to law enforcement authorities.
The mother of a 15-year-old boy who was molested, whose story is held up as an example, says that she told community members about the molestation because "I was not going to let this man get away with it."
"I didn't treat it like it's a secret, because the molesters, this is what they thrive on," she says. "They think everyone should just keep it a secret."
The woman is not identified, and she's filmed behind a screen to hide her face. She makes no mention of calling police, or sending the molester to prison — the only surefire way to stop a pedophile from victimizing more children.
Aaron Twerski, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a national expert on tort law, says in the video, "Every case that exists is a tragedy, and the fact that one molester can affect so many people makes this a problem that we just can't look away from."
Twerski does not suggest any legal remedies to the problem.
Contacted by the Forward, Twerski said that reporting abuse to police is a complex issue that could not be fully raised in the 10-minute video.
"The focus of that video was to alert the community to the problem," Twerski said. "It's a complex question of who has to report, and who is a mandated reporter. I'm not sure we could do it in that video."
While the legal intricacies around mandated reporting may indeed be complex, the moral obligation of ordinary citizens is clear, Soury said: Report suspected child sexual abuse to authorities.
"It's like someone breaking into your house and hurting you — should that be handled in the community?" Soury said. "No, you call 911 when there's a crime."
Soury said that efforts to deal with pedophiles within the religious community have failed because rabbis, principals and other community leaders are not equipped to investigate, prosecute and punish serious crimes. "The community cannot handle it. The community is not law enforcement," Soury said. "These are terrible crimes against children."
This is not the first time a video has raised questions about Ohel's commitment to reporting abuse. Mandel was videotaped speaking at a February 2008 workshop in Baltimore about sexual abuse, during which he seemed to suggest ways to avoid reporting incidents of sexual abuse.
In a response to a question about a father molesting his child, Mandel said, "One of the ways we advise the family to handle this is — for the protection of the family and so that the case does not have to become reportable to authorities, which is a whole separate conversation — we strongly advise and sometimes make a statement that the father needs to leave the house, period."
A video of his remarks was posted on YouTube by The Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based Jewish group fighting against child sexual abuse. At the end of Mandel's remarks, an unidentified person in the audience shouts out, "What about calling Child Protection [a state agency]?" Mandel ignores the question.
Ohel's response to child sexual abuse is not just an issue for the Orthodox community; it's also a matter of taxpayer concern. Ohel runs a large and successful foster care program (ranked No. 1 in New York in 2006), and subsists mainly on government funding. In 2006, the most recent year for which tax documents are publicly available, Ohel received $38 million in taxpayer money, 89% of its total revenue.
The "Ignorance Is Not Bliss" video was produced with a grant from the New York State Office of Mental Health. Spokeswoman Jill Daniels said the amount of monitoring by her agency varies when it funds projects such as Ohel's, and that she didn't know how involved the agency had been in the video's production. Daniels did say her agency's policy is that anyone who suspects child abuse of any kind should report it to authorities.
Earlier this year, Ohel was selected by the Brooklyn district attorney's office as a partner in its Kol Tzedek hot line, which is aimed at encouraging Orthodox Jewish victims to report abuse to authorities. Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said he hadn't seen the "Ignorance Is Not Bliss" video but said that District Attorney Charles Hynes has a good working relationship with Ohel.
"We encourage anyone with knowledge of a crime to call the police. That's all I'll say about that," Schmetterer said.
One unusual aspect of Ohel's video is that it features an interview with a confessed child molester who speaks behind a screen to shield his identity. The pedophile says that his tactic for molesting children was to ask them how much they weighed, then pick them up to "test" their weight as an excuse to fondle them.
"I'm only one person, but look at all the people I messed up," the molester says.
The Forward asked Ohel's Saker what happened to this pedophile and whether his abuse of numerous children in the Orthodox community was ever reported to police. Saker did not respond to the question.