Does Agudath Israel Of America Set The Brooklyn D.A.'s Policy On Reporting Child Sex Abuse?

Failed Messiah blog
May 25, 2011

The Forward has a new piece on Agudath Israel of America's position on reporting child sexual abuse to police or government child welfare services.

As I reported last week, Agudah held a halakha conference that granted CLE credits. At that conference, Agudah's position on reporting child sexual abuse was that in all cases of suspected child sexual abuse you must first ask a rabbi before reporting the suspected abuse to police.

In other words, except in cases where there is absolutely no doubt sexual abuse took place – for example, you walk into a room and find Rabbi X raping a 7-year-old – a rabbi (or, better yet, Agudah said, a beit din, religious court) has to give you permission to report the abuse to law enforcement or government child welfare services. And this holds true even if you are a legally mandated reporter.

The Forward picked up on this. (The Forward does not cite me or any other source, which hopefully means their reporter was at the conference and not that their reporter took the relevant information from my blog, like the audio of that conference session I posted, or from some other site without crediting us.)

The Forward's reporter called Agudah's executive VP Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel for comment.

Here is what Zwiebel told him:

"If somebody just comes and makes a claim, that's not a sufficient basis to invoke the tikkun olam [benefit to society] reason for overriding the general prohibition against mesirah," Zwiebel elaborated in a telephone interview with the Forward. There must first be "some circumstantial evidence or something that would appear to bolster the claim."

Zwiebel said that only rabbis who are specialists in the area of abuse should be consulted, though he acknowledged that no registry or designation of such rabbis currently exists. He said Agudah is "looking into developing, at least internally, some sort of database" that could be useful under such circumstances.

"We are dealing with a community that has standards established a millennia ago," Zwiebel said. "At the end of the day, as a community that feels itself bound by Torah, it still is the case that we have to think about questions like mesirah [informing on a Jew to non-Jewish authorities] and about the relevance of Halacha in determining these kinds of issues."

To be clear, what Zwiebel is saying is that the standard signs of sexual abuse used by therapists and law enforcement to identify potential victims and begin investigations to determine if abuse took place would not be enough for Zwiebel's rabbis to permit reporting suspected abuse to police.

In the same way, a young child who says, "Rabbi X pulled off my pants and rubbed my schmekel," would not warrant calling police, because there is no physical or circumstantial evidence and the child is, a) a child and therefore not a valid witness, and b) falls under Zwiebel's statement, "If somebody just comes and makes a claim, that's not a sufficient basis..."

In other words, cases where there are semen stains on the child's clothes, bleeding from the child's anus, or a neighbor witnessing the abuse in progress could be authorized by rabbis and then reported to police.

But most cases, the vast majority of cases, could not be reported. And that is true even though of these cases, the vast majority would lead to proof of guilt and a conviction.

What Zwiebel and his rabbinic backers have done is to preclude most law enforcement investigations and therefore keep most child sexual abusers out of prison – in some cases, keep them out of prison and in haredi schools as teachers, rebbes, and, sometimes, rosh yeshivas.

All this to honor a Jewish law, the prohibition of mesira, informing, that was meant to save Jews from unjust punishment at the hands of non-democratic, antisemitic governments. It was never meant to be used to protect child rapists or other Jewish criminals who hurt defenseless people.

Agudah is making a choice. It has chosen to protect child rapists but not protect children.

In New Jersey, where many conference participants live, this choice of Agudah's is against the law:

Marlene Lynch Ford, the Ocean County prosecutor whose jurisdiction includes the large strictly Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, said that the advice given at the Agudah conference could violate New Jersey law.

"It sounds like the rabbi is functioning as a gatekeeper," Ford said. "While I realize many people want to consult with a rabbi or a minister in a confidential relationship, the law is incumbent on [all involved], if they have grounds for reasonable suspicion, to make disclosures."

Ford said that failure to report suspicion of abuse could result in a charge of disorderly conduct. She said that she has never prosecuted someone for failure to report. But, she said, "in cases where people were aware of abuse and sat idly by, we have charged them with child endangerment, a third-degree or second-degree crime, depending upon the circumstances."

Ford said that, for mandated reporters in her state, "it is not a defense... that a person otherwise obligated to report abuse relied upon the advice of some counselor, teacher or rabbi that it was not necessary to report.... The cultural- or religious-based analysis is certainly separate and distinct from the legal obligation to report."

But the news is less good for haredi children in Brooklyn, New York:

A spokesman for [Charles] Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, said that apart from mandated reporters, there is no legal obligation in New York State to report abuse. Asked about Zwiebel's guidance that even mandated reporters were obliged to consult their rabbis for permission to report abuse to secular authorities, the spokesman, who declined to allow his name to be used, said, "We don't tell mandated reporters to go to a rabbi first. If anyone asks us, we tell them to call police or the D.A.'s office. I couldn't really comment on mandated reporters going to a rabbi first because that is not our office's position."

That's right. The Brooklyn DA's SPOKESMAN refused to be publicly identified and refused to comment on mandated reporters breaking New York law and going to a rabbi to get permission to report child sexual abuse.

That is probably because Brooklyn's large hasidic communities bloc vote, and if Hynes actually enforced the law and arrested some of these ultra-Orthodox rabbis who illegally meddle in the judicial process, Hynes would not get those votes.

So Agudath Israel of America, whose power base is Brooklyn, essentially decides what the law is, not the Brooklyn DA, and not the State Assembly.

This will probably continue to be the case until the federal government steps in.

If you have a child and live in Brooklyn, that is a day you should be praying for and working for with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.