Elliot B. Pasik (Jewish Press)
April 25, 2007
Amid all the recent bad news about our child sex abuse problem in New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere, permit me to be so bold as to suggest there is a glimmer of good news and hope.
The latest situation in Baltimore is, once again, a textbook example of our communal failure to protect children from predators who have insidiously invaded our yeshivas, synagogues, and even our homes where they tutor children. Earlier this month, Phil Jacobs, executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, reported that a yeshiva principal essentially lived a double-life as a sexual abuser of hundreds of children.
The principal, who died in 1989, was also a synagogue rabbi, guidance counselor, and yeshiva dorm counselor. His victims, some now in their 60s, regularly meet in support groups where they wonder how their lives would have been different had they not been abused.
Three victims went public, identified themselves by name, and spoke to Mr. Jacobs. One victim, now a yoga instructor in Florida, began to explore various Eastern faiths, was briefly married to a non-Jewish woman, and raised his child non-Jewish. "I am basically anti-Semitic," he says. "I like Jews, but I just need to stay away from them.... There's always been a lot of fear and anger in my life that comes as a result of [the rabbi's] actions. There's never a time that passes that I don't think about him. There's anger and there's fear."
This devastating article has, at long last, inspired a communal Jewish response. The Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore issued a public letter the day the article appeared. The rabbis' letter is a remarkable mea culpa, and I will quote one key passage at length:
The damage that abuse can cause is devastating and potentially life altering; it commonly ruins an individual's sense of self, their ability to trust others, and their ability to engage in a healthy intimate relationship. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus amongst mental health professionals serving the observant community that many of our "teens-at-risk" issues were generated by incidents of abuse. The risks of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and other self-destructive behaviors are all increased dramatically by abuse.
As such it is already well established by our own poskim that an abuser is to be considered a rodef (literally, a "pursuer"), effectively poised to destroy innocent lives and, therefore, virtually all means may be used to stop him and bring him to justice. Communities and day schools - with the blessing of Gedolei Yisroel - have encouraged and facilitated the reporting of these crimes to the local authorities, who are most equipped to investigate and prosecute these complex claims.
In the past, many mistakes were made in handling these situations. Abusers were often not recognized for what they were, as it was too difficult to believe that otherwise good people could do such things, nor was it sufficiently appreciated what damage such acts could cause. It was often thought that if the abuser was spoken to or warned, and perhaps moved to a different environment, he would never do these things again. In responding this way many terrible mistakes were made and tragic consequences resulted. We have seen too often the immediate or eventual failure of these "behind-the-scenes agreements" to keep the perpetrators away from others. Naïveté and a lack of understanding of the insidious nature of these perpetrators have allowed the toll of victims to rise. These failures haunt us - but they also motivate us to respond more effectively and wisely in the future.
Could the latest case in Baltimore have been avoided? And the cases in Brooklyn, Lakewood, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other locales where abusers, masquerading as rabbis, teachers, and camp counselors, have been known to prey?
The remarkable answer is yes - through the rule of American law, which is consistent with our own cherished Jewish values of exercising extraordinary efforts to preserve human life. Lo ta'amod al dam ra'echa - Do not stand upon the blood of your brother (Leviticus 19:16). This Torah verse requires that we not close our eyes to a drowning boy or girl but jump in with a life preserver.
Where the masses are affected, there is a principle in halacha that great precautions are taken to preserve health and safety. The Rambam rules that dangerous businesses be placed outside a city. Perhaps we can learn, kal v'chamor, how much more so is this true for protecting children from danger in our schools, synagogues, and homes.
Child protection laws in the U.S. vary from state to state, particularly as they relate to yeshivas and nonpublic schools, but in the main they include the following:
- Corporal punishment and sexual touching are illegal.
- Fingerprinting and criminal background checks are required of all employees.
- Mandatory reporting to government authorities of sex abuse and violent incidents.
- State registries of all school employees found guilty of sex abuse or violence.
I am a lawyer who for the past few years has been advocating that our yeshivas comply with all existing child protection laws and, where needed, that our states enact new laws. Sadly, my efforts have been met with apathy, indifference, negativity and cynicism. I call this the "m'raglim" attitude.
The m'raglim were the spies who returned to Moshe and the Jews with a negative report about the Land of Canaan. The people there are giants, they said, and we are like grasshoppers. With the exception of Yehoshua Bin Nun and Kalev Ben Yefuneh, the spies had given up the fight before it even began, and for this we Jews received great punishment. Rashi calls the spies r'shaim, evil ones. A negative attitude can be the cause of a great downfall.
The legal scene in New York is, quite frankly, not a strong one for nonpublic-school children. Last year, however, it was made a little bit stronger when our State Legislature passed a new law that - for the first time in 70 years - "authorizes" our nonpublic schools to fingerprint and background-check their employees. (A state labor law, in effect since 1937, bars private employers from fingerprinting employees unless another law allows or requires it.)
The key word is "authorizes." The new law, unlike laws in other states, does not require fingerprinting - that's something left to the discretion of individual yeshivas and other nonpublic schools.
This year, my new group-in-formation, the New York State Yeshiva Parents Association, is asking for more new laws. In February, we sent letters to selected legislative leaders and Governor Spitzer asking for mandatory fingerprinting so that our schools will no longer employ convicted sex offenders and other dangerous criminals. (The legislative leaders include Assembly Speaker Silver, and, in the Senate, Majority Leader Bruno, Deputy Majority Leader Skelos, and Education Committee Chairman Saland.)
We also asked for a mandatory reporting law. In 25 states - New York is not one of them - all clergy are mandated reporters, required to report evidence of sex abuse or violence to child welfare authorities. In 18 states - and this is remarkable - all persons who reasonably suspect child abuse are mandated reporters. But again, not in New York.
In New York, public school officials are mandated reporters, but not nonpublic school employees. Thus, New York is among the small minority of states whose laws do not require nonpublic, religious schools to report sex abuse to state child welfare authorities.
My February 2007 letter to the State Legislature makes a modest proposal. We are asking for neither an "all person" nor an "all clergy" mandatory reporting law - just one for nonpublic-school employees. In this manner, we hope to create a consensus and avoid an inevitable confrontation with ultra-conservative elements who would object to a broad mandatory reporting law.
Who, after all, could reasonably object to a law that essentially establishes every school, public and nonpublic, in our state as a safe oasis for children? Such a law would be entirely consistent with the ancient common-law doctrine of in loco parentis (Latin for "in place of the parent"). When a school assumes physical custody of a child, it is in loco parentis, and owes the same high duty of care that a parent ordinarily owes a child.
Finally, my letter asks for a nonpublic-school disciplinary system that is comparable to the public school system. All nonpublic schools should be required to have child safety and abuse prevention plans. All nonpublic-school employees should be registered with the State Education Department, and when credible complaints of abuse or violence are filed, disciplinary hearings should be held. Our yeshivas have no such apparatus, and it is thus no surprise that sexual predators have been known to move from one yeshiva to another.
I have asked our major frum organizations - the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union, and Agudath Israel - for their support of these latest proposals. So far, there has been silence.
The RCA is holding its annual convention from April 29 through May 1 at the Jewish Heritage Museum in Manhattan. I have submitted a proposed resolution - as I did at the RCA's 2005 convention for the then-yet to-be-passed background check law - in support of the new laws proposed in my February letter to the Legislature and in this article.
You can make a difference by e-mailing RCA officials your thoughts (see the "Contact Us" section on the RCA website at www.rabbis.org). You can also make a difference by e-mailing New York's legislative leaders from the websites of the State Assembly and Senate.
Let your voice be heard, so that when God asks Ayeka? - when He asks where you stand in the battle to protect our children's bodies and souls - you can answer without guilt or self-doubt.