Out of the Darkness

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Recent stories in The New York Times and The New York Jewish Week about alleged child molestation and attempts to use rabbinical courts to block investigations or even cover up crimes are, to say the least, extremely disturbing. The sexual and physical abuse of children and other forms of domestic violence are among the gravest of sins. Wherever such incidents occur, within or outside the Jewish community, they must be vigorously investigated and if the evidence suggests, prosecuted in secular courts.

A detailed front-page story by Paul Vitello in the The New York Times last week reports that for decades, Brooklyn prosecutors substantially ignored molestation from the local ultra-Orthodox Jewish community - about 800,000 followers of Hasidic and other sects who make up the largest such cluster outside Israel. But in the past year, there have been 26 cases of alleged child molestation within the Haredi community, and the story notes that the district attorney's office has "brought charges against a variety of men - yeshiva teachers, rabbis, camp counselors, merchants and relatives of children. Eight have been convicted; 18 await trial."

Members of these communities, following time-honored Jewish practice, have historically taken to rabbinic courts, called bet dins, which conduct their own investigations and often "do not report their findings to the secular authorities, even when they judge someone guilty of a crime," according to Vitello's reporting. He adds that reporting crimes to the secular authorities has been frowned upon, and those who do so can be ostracized by the community. Some of these practices resulted from rabbinical courts operating in hostile host societies where Jews would not get fair trials, and where the price of a major scandal could have resulted in a pogrom against the entire community.

Even more disturbing was the report by Hella Winston in the October 9, 2009 edition of The Jewish Week which quoted Judge Gustin Reichbach, a state Supreme Court judge as "lashing out" at the Haredi community for what he said was "a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator."

But there should be zero tolerance for this avoidant and shameful conduct. With illegal activity - particularly that which is so heinous as abuse - there is no justification for any group saying, "Trust us - we can deal with our own outside the scope of secular authorities." Such practice is hauntingly familiar to the child sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholic priests.

Thanks to the efforts of groups like SNAP (Survivors Network Against Priest Abuse) and actions taken by the U.S. Council of Bishops and by the Pope himself, these practices have been deemed totally unacceptable. If they are unacceptable among Catholics, they are just as unacceptable anywhere within the Jewish community or elsewhere.

Until recent years, the result of the cloak of silence has been that abuser rabbis, teachers and camp counselors are often either allowed to keep their jobs, or transferred to similar positions in other communities where they can resume their abusive actions. But as both The New York Times and The Jewish Week report, an increasing number of members of the very religious Jewish communities are seeking justice within the secular criminal justice system, since they no longer have confidence that they can find justice in their community's rabbinical courts. Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the Brooklyn District Attorney's sex crimes bureau, said that such developments "would (have been) inconceivable just a few years ago."

We must of course be careful not to stereotype any group as protectors of sex offenders. To do so would be both irresponsible and utterly disrespectful. At the same time, when premier news sources, both secular and Jewish, clearly report on actual crimes and attempts to cover them up, it points to the strongest possible need to prevent such incidents and eliminate any justification for protecting perpetrators. The only way to effect such results is to allow for open and exemplary prosecution of offenders.

Our brave fellow Jews who have had the courage to speak out even in the face of possibly being ostracized, deserve our admiration and support. The leaders and members, rabbinic and lay, of all streams of Judaism must speak and act with one voice to say that sexual abuse of children is a serious crime which must be vigorously investigated, with indicted perpetrators being brought to trial and justice. And the practice of any kind of "cover up" or attempts to "blame the victim" must be stopped immediately and permanently.