Dealing with Scandal

By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
December 18, 2012

Last week’s media reports of lurid allegations of abuse by several distinguished rabbis and educators are dismaying, horrifying and shocking – but not surprising. I start with three premises that inform the entire approach to these sordid tales.

First, all human beings are flawed, rabbis included. All people sin, some people’s sins are crimes, and like for any sin or crime, there are gradations of severity that pertain and ultimately define the act. The abuse of children is especially heinous. Please note that this is not intended at all as a comment on the guilt or innocence of the accused herein, but is meant as a general statement. I cannot pass judgment on the allegations herein.

Second, all crime victims should report the alleged victimization to the police – especially when the allegations involve the abuse or molestation of minors. This is a matter which I addressed in our congregation well over a decade ago, and have reinforced several times: don’t come to me. I cannot investigate or make arrests. Go right to the police and prosecution. They make arrests and prosecute. The judicial system exonerates or punishes. Rabbis have no role, despite what others might argue.

Crimes are police matters, and crimes against children are a classic case of pikuach nefesh (saving lives) that override even the laws against mesira (informing on another Jew). Anyone who thinks it necessary to first consult a panel when children are in potential danger might as well consult a panel when the question becomes whether or not to desecrate Shabbat for someone who is ill. By the time the panel convenes, the patient can be dead. By the time the panel decides whether to report the crime, more children could have been harmed. So crime victims should go right to the police.

Third, the media lie. Sometimes their lies are outright falsehoods, and sometimes their lies are just exaggerations – but lie they do, wantonly and persistently. Some media outlets lie in order to sensationalize their stories and attract more readers, and some media outlets lie in order to further a religious or political agenda they have. This, unfortunately, I know from first-hand experience.

To give but the most recent example, the Israeli broadsheet Haaretz reported last month that I had come under fire for writing in this space about the “Decline and Fall of the American Empire,” especially some comments about the intelligence of the typical Obama voter. To their writing, I had come “under fire,” the congregation was in an “uproar,” the Board was meeting and letters was being circulated. The pressure on me was allegedly intense.

But every single word was an absolute falsehood, an utter fabrication. Haaretz even contacted me before printing their story, and I graciously informed them that it was all untrue. There was no uproar, no fire, no Board meeting, no letter from the Board, no pressure – nothing. A complete invention. Less than a handful of people disagreed with what I wrote or said, which is likely a weekly occurrence, anyway. I told Haaretz that if they print such a story, they should know that they are printing a complete untruth. Naturally, they printed it the next day. All it took was one person to tell them (anonymously, of course) that such-and-such was happening, and that the offending party (me) offended their far leftist agenda, and it was published, and then picked up and embellished by web sites that traffic in innuendo and anti-Orthodox bashing. And people read it, thought it is true, and – irony – my reputation was enhanced in the circles I admire most. Nonetheless, lies remain lies, and media lying is a daily occurrence.

The upshot is that, therefore, I take these allegations with less than a grain of salt, especially the anonymous ones.

But here’s my main problem with the lurid allegations that surfaced last week. Of course, we have sympathy for the alleged victims, and we must have sympathy for the alleged victims, both genuinely and because it is politically correct to have sympathy for alleged victims. But the limits of my sympathy are tested when victims do not come forward and prosecute in real time – when the events occur – and instead wait for 20, 30 or even 40 years to come forward and do nothing more than besmirch the reputations of their alleged abusers.

The flip side of coming forward and lodging a complaint with the police is that the accused then have the ability to defend themselves, to have their proverbial day in court. The victims inform the police, testify before the Grand Jury (if appropriate), and testify at trial. They are cross-examined. The victim’s credibility can be impeached. The defendants can testify as well and mount a defense. A jury of their peers decides their fate. At the end of the process, the accused are either convicted and punished, or exonerated and pray that they can recover their reputations. Either way, the system is set up to protect both the victims and the accused.

Today, we are operating in an absolutely reprehensible system in which victims choose not to prosecute, and then long after the Statute of Limitations has run and prosecution is impossible, they prosecute through the media – and anonymously to boot. In the judicial system, the accused have a presumption of innocence. In the media, the accused have a presumption of guilt. They cannot defend themselves. They are tarred and feathered, hung out to dry, losing friends, family and supporters. They lose their jobs, and no one wants to be seen with them publicly. A lifetime of good deeds with a sterling reputation is erased in an instant, never to be regained and never to be recovered.

That is mob justice, and it is grossly unfair, not to mention an odious violation of Torah law. It is rank lashon hara, which Jewish law obligates us to disbelieve. It serves no one well, and serves no legitimate purpose.

Well, there could be a purpose, a to’elet (a benefit, in the language of Jewish law) that would permit such exposure: if future harm to others will thereby be prevented. I.e., if the accused – say, a teacher – is still in a position to harm children, then there is an interest and a justification in going public, exposing him and his misdeeds, and protecting children. (Was that a realisitic factor in this case? I don’t know, but from the information to date, it certainly doesn’t seem so.) One might then fairly ask: if that is the motivation of the victims, then why didn’t they seek to protect their peers 20, 30 and 40 years ago? Why didn’t they prosecute when they should have?

Pure vengeance is not a legitimate purpose, nor is catharsis a legitimate purpose. One who wants vengeance should confront the accused directly, and one who seeks catharsis should speak to a therapist, not the media. But civilized people do not address grievances by anonymously running to media decades after the event. It is outrageous and shameful conduct, notwithstanding the sympathy one feels for them, whatever happened.

Again, there are often cogent and plausible reasons why victims do not come forward, usually to avoid stigma, publicity, or other personal issues. To me, it is the most vexing aspect of these squalid stories. I reported some incidents to the local police last year – and the local prosecution – both of which investigated but were stymied because the victims refused to cooperate. Will those same victims come forward anonymously in 2040 and castigate their abuser? I would hope not, despite my revulsion toward the accused. NOW is the time.

Victims who choose silence when they could prosecute have a moral obligation to remain silent when they can no longer prosecute. The media grant the charges an aura of credibility that would necessarily be challenged in a courtroom. It is simply uncouth, these days, to even question the reliability of these anonymous complainants to the media. Their allegations are invested with an authority that they may or may not deserve. We have thus created a system that is inherently unjust, pat ourselves on the back for our imagined superiority, and then smirk at the accused – never imagining that some vengeful or disgruntled contemporary of ours might someday do the same thing to us. (Indeed, allegations of sexual abuse of children by one spouse are staples in custody/visitation litigation.)

That is why trial by jury (or judge) is the way civilized societies resolve their legal disputes, and not that the resolutions are always fair either. Guilty people on occasion are acquitted, and honest complainants become even more disenchanted. By the same token, I vividly recall the day when former Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan stood on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse after being acquitted, and said “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” The system is not perfect, but it is the system under which we live – and the demands of Jewish law are even more stringent for the accused and their accusers.

And that is why the heroine of the Jewish people in 2012 is that young Satmar woman who prosecuted her now-convicted abuser, Nechemya Weberman, and withstood all the ignominy heaped upon her by shameless members of that community. I hope, too, that his other alleged victims come forward as well, and testify, too, so the Satmar community should have no doubt about the monster they allowed in their midst and protected at all costs.

Two final points: some of the allegations herein involve behavior that, if not criminal, was at least weird and creepy. But there is a fundamental difference between weird/creepy – and criminal. Criminal is illegal, while weird/creepy is not illegal but might be unbecoming a teacher or administrator. It is best to let the police and prosecution decide which is which. And schools should be intolerant of the criminal, the weird and the creepy.

And some of the alleged victims who reported their abuse to school authorities back when it allegedly happened erred, but understandably so. In accordance with the times, and the way these matters were handled back then, it probably seemed like a reasonable approach. But in retrospect, if the allegations were serious and substantial enough, they should have been brought right to the police, not the school authorities. And certainly the school authorities should have taken them more seriously, if they were credible. But we should take care not to impose our standards of vigilance on an era when people were – sadly – more lackadaisical about these matters.

Again, none of this is intended as an adjudication of the information that has emerged to date. Fairness and justice demand that the accusers have our sympathy and the accused have the presumption of innocence.

That is civilized. The media circus that we indulge as the weapon of choice for delayed prosecutions is nothing less than the modern equivalent of the public lynching of old.

And we should not tolerate that anymore than we should cover-up abuse of any person, especially a child.