By Selena Ross (The Globe and Mail)
May 20, 2016
The Service Ontario office on Lawrence Avenue West is the most public of places: public in its stream of passersby and public in the sense that it’s a conduit, bland and efficient, to the government.
That is where Joe Schacter sat down at a computer terminal in December and began looking at child pornography, police say.
Mr. Schacter reportedly appeared surprised when people were alarmed enough by the photos, allegedly of little boys in bathing suits, that they called police. The 55-year-old, a retired teacher at two private Orthodox Jewish schools, was arrested and charged.
That news, reported in local media, ended a 20-year internal battle for Adam, a North York man. He picked up his phone and asked to speak to a police detective. Joe Schacter, he said, had coached him into performing sex acts for three years of his childhood.
Adam was in his 40s and he says in every year of his adult life he had talked himself out of making that call. “‘I should go to the cops,’” he would say to himself. “‘I should go to the cops. I should go to the cops.’”
Then, always, came a second thought: “You could destroy your life. You could destroy your kids.”
Adam’s allegation that Mr. Schacter was a sexual predator was not new to police and certainly not to many in Toronto’s Orthodox Jewish community. According to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail and interviews with community members, Mr. Schacter has been accused multiple times over a 23-year period of sexually assaulting little boys. In the early nineties, criminal charges were laid, then withdrawn. A decade later, after more allegations, the Ontario College of Teachers ordered a disciplinary hearing. It was cancelled and Mr. Schacter continued to teach until he retired in 2013.
There’s no documentation about why the cases were dropped, but in the close-knit community, it was understood that the children had recanted, their families unwilling to proceed.
Adam – not his real name – watched from afar as the community and authorities proved willing to forget the formal allegations.
“It came up, everybody spoke about it, then it went away,” he said. “And then years just passed and went on and went on.”
Years before the Catholic Church was forced to publicly confront sexual abuse by its priests, Orthodox communities around the world were doing the same in their own way. Old religious principles encourage Jews to settle conflicts amongst themselves rather than handing one another to the secular justice system, some believe.
But child abuse, others argue, should be an exception – or rather, they say, it has always been a misinterpretation of God’s word to think He wouldn’t want children protected at any cost.
Settling that question has been especially agonizing in Toronto. Unlike most places with large Orthodox populations, particularly Brooklyn, Canada has no statute of limitations on sexual assault. So a very real debate over whether to call 911, even on a single man, has loomed for an entire generation.
After Adam went to police earlier this year, three other men went on record. Mr. Schacter faces charges of gross indecency and sexual assault going back to 1982. The allegations have not been proven in court and his lawyer declined to comment. Mr. Schacter is living at his mother’s North York home on bail.
Mr. Schacter hadn’t been raised Orthodox, according to a dozen people from Toronto’s Orthodox Jewish community who spoke to The Globe and Mail.
At around age 20, he said he wanted to become more religious and joined an Orthodox synagogue. Eitz Chaim was one of two private schools that hired him, and dozens of families invited him home for Sabbath dinners.
They didn’t know that Mr. Schacter didn’t follow a traditional Orthodox lifestyle in his own home, said Adam.
The young, animated teacher was well-known for inviting boys to visit his house after class. At Adam’s house, his parents didn’t allow TV, movies, comics or junk food. He and his friends had spent their free time riding bikes or resting at home, whose quiet could sometimes be “oppressive,” he remembered.
Mr. Schacter had all the novelties of the early eighties: not just junk food, but Pringles chips; not just movie rentals, but his own VHS tapes.
“I’d walk over and he’d have my Batman comics, which I loved,” said Adam. “You know, kids have milk and cookies and watch their favourite television show at home? I was doing it there.”
The teacher also began showing Adam porn, he said. Eventually, he alleges, Mr. Schacter taught him how to perform oral and manual sex, and would take Polaroids of him.
“I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “It was all new to me, at 10, 11.”
After the first incident, he says he went home and ran past his mother to his room, “altered,” saying he didn’t feel well. The visits continued until Adam started high school, and he never spoke of them, he said. He long believed he had willingly traded sex for the potato chips and comics he loved. “For years it was my failure to have been lured for treats,” he said.
Then, in his early 20s, Adam’s mind “popped,” he said. He heard that a young Eitz Chaim student had complained that Mr. Schacter had touched him. “I thought ‘Oh my goodness. It’s not just me. It could be hundreds.’”
The child’s parents were incensed. They went to the police and Mr. Schacter was arrested and thrown in jail for a night. The community exploded with talk.
It’s unclear exactly what two charges were laid in 1993 or why they were dropped. The court records have been destroyed, though documents from the Ontario College of Teachers refer to them, saying Mr. Schacter was accused of using his hand to touch the boy “for a sexual purpose.” The boy’s parents and Eitz Chaim declined to comment. Toronto Police did not provide an interview with an officer in charge of that case, who still works in the local division.
But the Globe spoke to several people who remember the sequence of events. They said the boy withdrew the charges after the family spoke to others in the community. The family worried the father’s livelihood, which depended on an Orthodox clientele, would suffer.
“I believe the family was pressured to drop it,” said Adam.
He pictured disbelief aired behind closed doors – but also a kind of persuasion he practised steeling himself against: “‘Don’t do this to him. Don’t air our dirty laundry out in the non-Jewish world. They think terribly of us as it is. They’ll think even worse. Keep it among ourselves, we’ll deal with him, we’ll reprimand him, we’ll change things.’”
A handful of Talmudic laws guide how to respond to others’ bad behaviour. First, don’t gossip or speak ill of anyone. But second, when wrongdoing is clear, handle it internally when possible.
One religious edict asks Jews to avoid public shame: being seen in a bad light desecrates God’s name. But the idea of doling out justice with no outside help also dates back to political realities in the Old World, said Benny Forer, a California district attorney and ordained Orthodox rabbi.
“It’s not taught to you in school,” he said. “All through your childhood, you hear stories of abuses of power by law enforcement … stories of the rebbe in Russia or the rebbe in Poland who got arrested for being Jewish. So that’s ingrained in your consciousness.”
For some matters, especially divorces, Orthodox tribunals rule. No one interviewed could remember Toronto’s Orthodox courts handling a sexual assault case. Still, sometimes unusual solutions have been found in Toronto.
Rabbi Heshi Nussbaum was another Eitz Chaim teacher who pleaded guilty in the 1980s to child-abuse charges. He wasn’t jailed, and a job was arranged for him on a dairy farm outside Toronto, away from children, community members said.
But Rabbi Nussbaum, who was convicted again in 2014 of historical sexual assault, still prays in Toronto’s Orthodox synagogues. A fourth religious rule says that wrongdoers can repent and be accepted back into the community, a process of restitution that can’t often be found in Ontario courts.
It’s a concept that Mr. Forer believes is misapplied to child sexual assault, which is so grave that it’s hard to make meaningful amends, and which poses a worryingly high risk of recidivism.
The district attorney, who grew up mostly in Toronto’s Orthodox community, began to speak out about child sexual abuse after a friend in North York died by suicide in 1993, with no one knowing at the time he was a victim of abuse.
He has heard people say abusers should stay within their social circles so others can “keep an eye” on them.
“You see a sex offender,” Mr. Forer said. “You know what your children see? They see a man that you walk up and say ‘Good Shabbos’ to. … Your children see a trusted man.”
After his 1993 brush with police, Adam says Mr. Schacter called him out of the blue shortly after the charges were dropped.
“He told me this terrible story, that somebody’s saying terrible things about him,” Adam recalled. “And his message was, you can’t ever say anything like that, because look what happened. I was arrested! I was in jail.”
After the boy recanted, Adam watched a circular argument take hold. Mr. Schacter “was vindicated, right? Because it was dropped,” he said. “Everybody then said ‘Yeah, the kid’s full of crap. You know these kids, the psychiatrist tells them that something happened to them that never even happened.’”
A teacher at Eitz Chaim said fellow teachers widely believed kids were making false accusations, perhaps coached by psychiatrists.
But slowly, the allegations mounted, and the community started to take them seriously – while still refusing help from outside.
In 2006, when the Ontario College of Teachers planned a disciplinary hearing, it documented all the known allegations against Mr. Schacter and a few rebukes.
After the charges were withdrawn in 1993, the school’s principal had “cautioned” the teacher against putting students in his lap or hugging them, the College found.
Ten years later, however, the College alleged Mr. Schacter had been putting a number of second- and third-grade boys on his lap. He tickled and kissed one boy in the 2003-2004 school year, asking him to stay alone in the classroom at recess. In May of 2004, while marking another boy’s work, Mr. Schacter “rubbed [the boy’s] back then lowered his hand and squeezed [the boy’s] buttocks over [his] clothing.” He entered the washroom when a third little boy was using it and pulled his pants up or down, the College alleged.
For any complaints to reach College of Teachers investigators, they are likely to have first been explored by police, said people familiar with the College’s process.
But no criminal charges were laid in 2004. In 2006, as the College prepared to hear his case, Mr. Schacter retained a lawyer. But then the College’s lawyers requested to drop the hearing, and the College did so, with a notation that the allegations were “not substantiated.”
Such a conclusion is rare, said a spokeswoman for the College, Gabrielle Barkany. In 2014, for example, only six out of 106 planned hearings were withdrawn. Still, the College won’t explain what happened, citing confidentiality rules. The lawyer who represented Mr. Schacter at the time also declined to comment.
An official source familiar with the 2004 complaints, and their abandonment by police and the College, said that parents and teachers from Eitz Chaim simply hadn’t been prepared for the allegations to spiral out beyond the school, and they didn’t co-operate. It’s unclear how the details reached secular authorities.
Eitz Chaim fired Mr. Schacter in 2004, 18 years after he began teaching there, and two years after a new principal arrived at the school. His wife, who had married him in middle age, left him around the same time.
A solution had been found, at least at Eitz Chaim. But families, even with young children, continued to invite the teacher over for dinner, said Adam.
“We’re going to leave him on the street? Just leave him? We have to take care of him,” he recalls them saying.
Mr. Schacter was quickly hired at another Hebrew school, where he stayed for five years before retiring from teaching. He still coaches hockey, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Adam had been in therapy for years when he says he asked Mr. Schacter to meet him on a hot July day in 2012 at the park across from the teacher’s house, a place that made him feel “ripped up.” He had put the phone call off for weeks, worried he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from physically attacking the older man.
According to Adam, the teacher excitedly agreed, thinking he was hearing from an old friend.
As the two sat on a park bench, Adam blurted out his years of rage, “how upset I was.” Then he stood up to walk away.
But the teacher had a response. “My life’s been ruined already, and I lost my wife, and don’t do this to me,” Adam recalls him saying.
The next day Adam received a letter from a lawyer, which he provided to the Globe; it said that Mr. Schacter would deny his accusations in a court of law.
Detective Constable Joel Manherz, who is handling the current case, said that many families tell him they’d like to help or join the four men preparing to testify in court, but they can’t because it could destroy their businesses or their children’s marriage prospects.
Police are the only officials with the “teeth” to handle dangerous people, said the detective.
“Forgiveness is a powerful thing, and that community is very good at making sure that that happens, that people are forgiven,” he said.
“But at the same time there has to be some accountability, there has to be protection of others from this going on, right?”
In March, Det. Constable Manherz sat in a North York synagogue with about 300 people. It was the first-ever Canadian visit by a group called the Jewish Community Watch, based in New York.
The group is its own type of tribunal, specifically for sexual abuse: it investigates accusations and posts alleged perpetrators’ names and photos online, under the heading “Wall of Shame.” Its leaders say it has never been sued.
The group also encourages victims to go to the police – but in New York, where people only have until age 23 to do so, that’s usually a moot effort.
In Canada, the group asked Det. Constable Manherz to explain to the crowd how he handles a case. Before he spoke, however, they asked a senior rabbi from Yeshiva University in New York to take the microphone.
Rabbi Yosef Blau recently saw the movie Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s exposé of Catholic priests’ abuse, he told the crowd.
“We can look at it and say ‘Oh!’” he said. “‘It’s not our problem! We’re not like the Catholics.’ And the truth is, there are obvious differences, but in a certain sense we have a greater responsibility,” said Rabbi Blau. “Because the Catholic Church has a hierarchy. If a teacher in a yeshiva abuses and is allowed to teach in another community … we can’t blame the Jewish hierarchy.”
If even one person knows about an abuser and doesn’t warn others, that person bears responsibility, he said.
One of the tenets of Judaism is the obligation to interpret the Torah for oneself.
“Don’t let people use [religious] terms to cover their unwillingness to face up to the issue, to think that they are protecting the image of the community,” Rabbi Blau said, “when in reality they are allowing the community’s weakness and rot to become much worse.”
For Adam, breaking from convention came after decades of haunting guilt. He worries that, in the years he didn’t go to police, more children could have been abused. “You know, I feel terrible that I didn’t do anything,” he said.
But independent thinkers will always risk being punished unless the community as a whole shifts its thinking, he said. That will only happen if leaders clearly advise people to take all abuse allegations straight to police – a move they haven’t made yet in Toronto, at least not publicly.
“They have to encourage it,” Adam said. “They have to.”
One of the most respected of Toronto’s Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Yaakov Hirschman, told the Globe he feels torn over what to tell those alleging sexual abuse.
“In principle,” he said, they should go to police. “In real life, we’ve gone through situations where allegations were false. There’s always this feeling that you’re caught in between.”
Rabbi Shlomo Mandel leads the synagogue that first welcomed Joe Schacter into the Orthodox world. He said he has been “painfully” following the allegations against him.
In his reading, Jewish law dictates that if someone could be hurt, “one has to take whatever measures are necessary to stop it, full stop, period.” That means “obviously, co-operating with the authorities,” he said.
After all, the spirit that rallied people around a young Joe Schacter should rally them also around any alleged abuse victims, said the rabbi. “We definitely welcomed him … that’s part of our obligation,” he said. “But it’s the same obligation that tells us to care for other people.”
Timeline of Schacter case
Around 1980: Joe Schacter joins an Orthodox synagogue in North York.
1982 to 1993: In court documents filed in 2016, three men allege that Mr. Schacter abused them at different points during these years. They did not contact police at the time.
1986: Mr. Schacter starts teaching at Eitz Chaim private school.
1993: Police are first called about Mr. Schacter when an Eitz Chaim student reports being abused by the teacher four years earlier. The charges are quickly dropped.
2003 to 2004: Mr. Schacter is accused of inappropriately touching several students at Eitz Chaim. No charges are laid.
2004: Mr. Schacter leaves Eitz Chaim and begins teaching at a Hebrew school.
2006: The Ontario Teachers College announces there will be a disciplinary hearing for Mr. Schacter, releasing a list of allegations going back to 1993.
2007: The College withdraws the allegations, saying they are “not substantiated.”
2009: Mr. Schacter changes schools again.
2013: He retires from teaching, but continues to work with children as a hockey coach.
2015: Mr. Schacter is arrested on child pornography charges at the Lawrence Avenue West Service Ontario office.
2016: Police lay historical sex assault charges involving four complainants.