Expert Warns Religious Educators of Denial of Sexual Abuse

by Jonah Mandel (Jerusalem Post)
May 26, 2011

The denial and complacency within the national-religious sector regarding sexual assault of minors is wrong and harmful to the victims, an expert warned a forum of educators on Wednesday – emphasizing the danger of the belief that a rabbinic figure would not molest a child.

Speaking at the Rehovot campus of Orot Teachers' College on their annual conference dedicated to leadership, Adi Fishman, an Education Ministry expert on preventing and treating sexual assault, specializing in the national-religious sector, said "the religious public's feeling – as though its children are more protected from sexual assault than those of other populaces – is wrong."

"When, indeed, nothing has yet happened, that feeling can be a convenient defense mechanism. But once a sexual assault does occur, the belief that 'things like that don't happen in our society' can mar the educator or parent's ability to assist the victimized child," she added. "An educator must first and foremost be aware that there is a good [likelihood] that there is a sexually assaulted child in his classroom. We know that one of every four girls, and five boys, will be sexually assaulted."

According to Fishman, the chances that a child – who was not educated in advance about reporting sexual assaults – would indeed inform an adult about such an incident were slim to nonexistent. Combining that with the taboo surrounding the topic in religious society, leads to very low rates of reporting such sexual offenses.

Hence, it is crucial to explain to religious children that such a phenomenon exists, and to encourage them to tell an adult they trust if it occurs to them, Fishman stressed.

Fishman also noted the false precept, prevalent in the ranks of the religious, that rabbinic figures would never sexually assault anyone, and noted to the conference attendants indicative signs that should raise an educator's awareness to a possible sexual assault.

"If an average child becomes the classroom clown, or a social kid becomes a loner, and so forth – an educator must take this as a signal of distress and try to reach the bottom of it. In many cases, the child could be telling the environment he or she is in distress and underwent sexual assault. Children have a hard time telling about sexual assaults they experienced, but there is no child who doesn't indicate in some way that they are in distress," she said.

While noting the growing openness in religious schools to deal with this topic, Fishman said that there is still much work to be done – especially in preliminary education and prevention.

"In recent years we see a rise in the volume of [complaints] to us from the religious-educational system on issues pertaining to sexual assaults, and I believe this is a result of a higher degree of willingness from within the system to deal with the problem," Fishman said. "More and more principals are enabling us to reach out to students and educate them on the problem – but there is still lots of work ahead in raising the religious public's awareness on the problem itself."

The national religious society was shocked in the late 1990s to learn that the head of the prestigious Netiv Meir yeshiva high school, Rabbi Ze'ev Kopolovitch, had for many years been sexually abusing some of his male students.

Part of the shock resulted from the fact that the rabbi's heinous deeds were known to some within the school's administration, and senior members of the religious Zionist movement, who didn't inform police about the crimes.

More recently, last February the Takana Forum warned the public of Rabbi Motti Elon, who they said was a threat to the public in light of his failure to keep commitments he made to the forum to step down from all rabbinical, teaching and community responsibilities.

According to Takana, which was formed in part due to the Kopolovitch case, Elon made these commitments after allegations reached them of "sexual exploitation by a religious authority."

Police launched an investigation, and evidence was found alleging that he conducted indecent acts with two minors – one of them by force.

Based on their recommendations, and that of the state attorney, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein decided to press charges against Elon.