Haredim Increasingly Open to Addressing Sexual Abuse

By Jeremy Sharon (The Jerusalem Post)
February 15, 2012

Experts say attitudes changing within ultra-Orthodox community on reporting sexual abuse of minors.

Specialists and professionals this week highlighted a changing attitude within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community toward reporting suspected sexual abuse of minors.

During a two-day conference on children's well-being at Ben-Gurion University, which ended on Tuesday, experts and government officials in the field spoke of the ongoing challenges of tackling the issue of sexual abuse in the haredi sector, as well as recent progress that had been made.

The conference also covered issues such as increased youth delinquency among children from broken homes and children whose parents have criminal records; high rates of physical violence at boarding schools; and other social concerns relating to the well-being of children.

Discussing the issue of sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox sector, National Council for the Child director Dr. Yitzhak Kadman said that in recent years, the haredi public had become much more inclined than before to report incidents of abuse.

"More and more people within the haredi sector are willing to say that there is a problem," Kadman told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "Within the community, the first thing someone does in many aspects of life is consult a rabbi. Today, many rabbis are advising people to file complaints with the police or social workers, which wasn't the case in the past."

According to Kadman, the number of reports of minors suffering possible sexual abuse in that community is lower than the national average, but he said this was likely due to cultural practices and taboos surrounding the issue within the haredi sector.

A survey presented during the session showed that the national rate of sexual abuse victims up to age 14 was 1.7 per thousand in 2010. Figures for predominantly ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods vary. Modi'in Illit had a rate of 0.7 per thousand in 2010, and Beitar Illit had a rate of 1.7, whereas Elad had a rate of 4.3.

Kadman also emphasized that sexual abuse was not necessarily more prevalent in the haredi sector, but that avoidance of the issue was more widespread than in the broader public.

"A haredi child learns from birth to obey without asking why," said Bat Sheva Shaynin, director of the In Our Hearts center for sexually abused youth, during Monday's panel discussion. "Children won't talk about bad things that happened out of a fear of speaking gossip [prohibited by Jewish law]."

But Yishai Shalif, director of educational-psychological services in the ultra-Orthodox city of Modi'in Illit, said there had been a sea change in communal leaders' attitudes toward the issue in recent years.

The approach to the issue has greatly improved, he told the Post, thanks to the social services network's cooperation and sensitive handling of such matters, and the support and willing assistance of the rabbinical and lay leadership.

This cooperation has led to the establishment of workshops for adults, teaching them how to be more aware of cases in which a child may have been abused, and similar classes for children to strengthen their sense of caution around strangers and their readiness to report any incidents of abuse.

Still, an ultra-Orthodox woman with personal experience of sexual abuse, identifying herself only as "M," spoke during the conference about the difficulties of dealing with the problem within the community.

M called the sector's attitude a "conspiracy of silence" and said that it was extremely difficult to break down the "walls of silence" on taboo issues. Even after a report or complaint is filed about suspected abuse, she added, the police frequently close investigations without charges being brought, due to a lack of evidence – often because children are reluctant or unable to speak about the incident.

Kadman reported that in one incident in a prominent haredi community, a teacher had been brought in for questioning regarding a complaint filed against him alleging sexual abuse of a child. During questioning, he admitted to having sexually abused 80 children.

According to the National Council for the Child, children from the ultra-Orthodox sector are more likely to be unsure if what they experienced was sexual abuse, and it is harder for them to understand that they have been subjected to inappropriate behavior.

Despite these concerns, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry's chief social worker for youth, Hannah Slutzky, emphasized that holding a debate on the issue would have been impossible just 10 years ago.

"The ultra-Orthodox sector has come a long, long way in confronting the problem, and the authorities themselves must now be open to addressing the issue in a culturally sensitive manner," she said.

Statistics presented in a Tuesday panel discussion on youth delinquency showed that in 2009, 32 percent of minors aged 12-18 with criminal records came from families in which the parents had divorced, and 33% of youths in this age group had at least one parent with a criminal record.