Op-Ed: Lessons From Penn State

By Elliot B. Pasik (Vos Iz Neias)
November 14, 2011

New York - Ain apotropus l'arayos is a Talmudic maxim (Ketuvoth 13b) which warns us of the great enticement of immorality.

And so, the Torah commands us, "...do not explore (lo sosuru) after your heart and after your eyes after which you may stray" (Numbers 15: 37-41).

The latest child sex abuse scandal unfolding at Penn State University should remind us that the problem may seem to hibernate from the headlines for a few weeks, but sure enough, will re-emerge some place, in some fashion, in ways that we never could imagine.

The allegations are, even for seasoned abuse-watchers, shocking. An assistant football coach at a major university is accused of molesting at least eight young boys, as young as ten. This deviant man, Jerry Sandusky, was also involved in nonprofit youth work.

Senior university officials were told about the abuse, never called the police, and now are accused of perjured grand jury testimony, and violation of child protection laws.

As we, the public, react with unmitigated disgust, we also observe that the police, the judicial system, and the university board of trustees have firmly confronted the scandal.

Not only were the arrested college vice-president and athletic director immediately discharged from their jobs, but the Penn State trustees went above and beyond the letter of the law. They fired even those school officials not arrested, but who knew about the abuse, and didn't sufficiently act.

The employment of the legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, was terminated, notwithstanding that in technical adherence to the law, he informed his own supervisor. The Penn State trustees were not satisfied – he should have called the cops, did not, and paid with his job. The university president was also given his pink slip.

And stepping outside his legal position as our nation's highest elected federal official, President Obama weighed in with these words on a purely state criminal law enforcement matter:

"And I think it's a good time for the entire country to do some soul-searching — not just Penn State. People care about sports, it's important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids. And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected...you can't just rely on bureaucracy and systems in these kinds of situations. People have to step forward, they have to be tapping into just their core decency.....all of us have to step up, we don't leave it to somebody else to take responsibility."

As additional facts about the Penn State situation emerge, our own community should sit up and take notice.

What legal machinery do we have for addressing child abuse? Almost none. In recent weeks, a Monsey, N.Y. rabbi employed as a kashrus supervisor was arrested, as were two orthodox-appearing men in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There are no internal investigations, everybody keeps their jobs, and the public is informed of nothing.

Just as worse, nearly every arrest we've seen in recent years is accompanied by varying levels of denial, cover up, and even witness intimidation.

Proposals for change made by advocates are greeted with either stony silence by our communal groups, or, the public is told, first ask a rabbi before calling the police.

We should weigh the wise words and conduct of the Penn State Board of Trustees, and of President Obama. We need to tap into our "core decency".

Our yeshivas are a legal no-man's land. No employee background checks to flush out deviants. No mandated reporting of abuse to child protection authorities. "Silent resignations" of abusive employees, who then move on to other yeshivas. Statutes of limitations short enough that most abusers and their employing institutions escape accountability.

Absent these basic legal protections, it is no wonder that our children are susceptible to heinous acts of abuse.

Enough is enough. Even Lot protected his guests from the marauding Sodomites. We can surely rise to our own modern challenge, and protect our children. Let's all tap into our core decency, and bring about the change we so desperately need.

Elliot Pasik is an attorney in private practice, and president of Jewish Board of Advocates Children, Inc.