Op-Ed: The Next Step In Preventing Sexual Abuse

by Ben Hirsch (The Jewish Star)
April 21, 2010

Last week, the Flatbush Shomrim issued an alert – a warning – to sex offenders that they would be arrested and prosecuted. The alert also instructed people to report sex crimes directly to the police. Judging from the positive blog posts and the flood of appreciative calls to the Shomrim hotline (to which I was in some cases privy) this message is a welcome one in our community. Indeed, the spate of recent arrests and convictions of those who have preyed sexually on young people seem to be a clear indication that, despite long-held communal norms and pressures, people are gaining the courage to do the right thing and report abusers to the authorities. The endorsement of this behavior by a trusted communal organization whose mission often puts it on the front lines dealing with this issue will, I believe, only reinforce this positive trend. However, in the midst of these positive developments, I am still left to wonder: where are the voices of our rabbinic leadership? While the Flatbush Shomrim alert seems to be endorsed by unnamed local rabbi(s), to date, not a single charedi rabbi has publicly expressed support for this position. Why?

Established halacha (Jewish Law) places a pedophile in the category of rodef (a pursuer), in part due to a recidivism rate well in excess of 50-percent, and clearly dictates an obligation to protect our community by reporting pedophiles to the police. In his 2004 psak (ruling) on this issue, Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv states that one should report those who sexually abuse children to the police. He went on to say that doing so is of benefit to society. Why haven't our rabbis been publicizing this?

As reported in a New York Times article, "Orthodox Jews Rely More on Sex Abuse Prosecution" on October 13, 2009, David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America said, "The district attorney should be careful not to be seen as making a power grab from rabbinic authority." Zwiebel's statement followed the joint statement of the Moetzes Gedolai HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America and the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah (The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools) in which they expressed their "vigorous" opposition to the Markey Bill, legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for the filing of criminal charges and civil claims in cases of childhood sexual abuse and open a limited one year window for currently time barred civil claims. In the statement, they explained that their decision was based on a fear of the "crippling financial liability" that could result from lawsuits that would jeopardize "the very existence" of yeshivas and communal institutions. Clearly they believe we have a serious problem.

From statements like these, one does not have to be a cynic to conclude that the rabbinic establishment has a vested interest in keeping reports of abuse within the community. For leaders who could be facing criminal and civil liability, invoking concepts like mesira and chilul Hashem to stop people from reporting is little more than a form of self-protection. Self-protection that, as the past 40 years have shown, has come at the expense of the protection of our community's children.

Relying on the members of the Agudah's Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and Torah Umesorah's Vaad Roshei Yeshiva, Chasidic rebbes, and community leaders such as Rabbi Joshua (Shia) Fishman of Torah Umesorah (who among other things, assisted Lipa Margulies of Yeshiva Torah Temimah as he intimidated victims of Yehuda Kolko from 1984 until 2006) and Rabbi David Niederman of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO) (who continues to actively protect pedophiles such as Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, still teaching in a Satmar boys school despite years of complaints) has netted our community the likes of Avrohom Mondrowitz1, Yehuda Kolko2, Avrohom Reichman3, Stephen Colmer4,  Michael Sabo5, Yona Weinberg6, Israel Weingarten7,  to name just a few.

More importantly, the cover-ups have resulted in hundreds of victims whose abuse could have been prevented. Dealing with reports of sexual abuse internally covers-up the crime, usually with catastrophic results when the pedophile strikes again–something we are hearing about daily in reports about the Catholic Church and frighteningly in our own community as well.

The Torah teaches us to avoid offering counsel in situations where we may be a nogea b'dovor (an interested party). This applies equally to rabbis, whom the Torah nowhere exempts from this rule. As such, because of their inherent conflicts of interest in this issue, I respectfully suggest that rabbis be precluded from being involved in this issue except in very limited ways–namely, encouraging people publicly and in private to go directly to the authorities and supporting them practically, emotionally and socially in that process.

I continue to hope for a day when our rabbinic leadership will publicly praise those who have the courage to report abusers to the police and join in our efforts to make our community safer for children.

In the meantime it's up to us to lead by example. In the past few years more and more of us have been doing just that. We've created organizations whose mission is to support victims and their families who are dealing with cases of sexual abuse. These grassroots organizations provide referrals to mental health professionals, referrals to law enforcement as well as support and assistance as the case proceeds, support groups for survivors and their families, offer clinicians and advocates training to better deal with this issue and promote legislation that protect our children. These efforts are changing the way we as a community view and deal with this sensitive issue and in the words of Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, in this there is a benefit to society.

Ben Hirsch is the president of Survivors for Justice ( www.sfjny.org ), an organization that advocates on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse and their families in the Orthodox community.

 


1. Chicago, IL, Brooklyn, NY and Jerusalem, Israel
2. Brooklyn, NY and Sullivan County, NY and Lakewood, NJ
3. Brooklyn, NY and Sullivan County, NY
4. Brooklyn, NY, Passaic, NJ and Kiryat Sefer, Israel
5. Brooklyn, NY
6. Brooklyn, NY
7. New York, United Kingdom, Belgium and Israel