What is Sexual Abuse?

By Harry Maryles (Emes Ve'Emunah blog)
January 11, 2013

I have to admit that the sex abuse issue is one of the most difficult issues for me to deal with in all of Judaism. Like many others, I used to think this kind of thing is unthinkable in the world of Orthodox Jewry. When in the past I heard rumors about people like that, I simply did not believe them. I have of course since come to believe that not only does it happen in the Orthodox world , it seems to happen about as frequently as it does in the rest of the world.

What is sexual abuse? And what is it not? Is all physical contact between two people wrong? Are there gradations of abuse? Do all people react the same way when they are abused Should we treat different forms of abuse the same way?

There are many things one must consider before making judgments about any given situation. In my view some types of abuse is worse than others.

There are also collateral damage issues, like who gets hurt in the process of seeking justice for the victim… or those rare cases (and they do exist although they are all but ignored these days) where innocent people get accused and are tainted for life even when accusations are proven false.

This is not about whether all reasonable suspicions of abuse should be reported to the police. They should. And in my view they need not be vetted by rabbis. But I think it is still fair to look at the whole picture.

What is justice in cases of abuse?

Although justice might include financial compensation to victims by abusers and their enablers, it is very possible that good institutions long after any abuse took place – and long after the abusers, faculty, administration, and board of directors have left to be replaced by an entirely new generation of same - could be ruined by overly generous punitive damages awarded by a jury or judge. The Agudah claim that old lawsuits brought against such institutions is unfair in those cases is a legitimate concern . The new people there may not even be aware that abuse ever took place there by a one time employee decades ago.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t be sued. Perhaps they should as the Markey Bill would have allowed. But the facts remain the same. What is fair to one person may be unfair to another. And the collateral damage could be huge. That is why I had a difficult time deciding to favor that bill – ultimately siding with justice for the victim. But it was not an easy decision for me.

And then there are issues about judging behavior of the past by today’s standards. Is it fair to judge what was a common practice of yesterday by the standards of our day?

One might answer that it is. After all someone was hurt and mistreated by those practices – innocent though they may have been see in that day. That everyone was not wise about it then doesn’t matter to the victim. He was hurt and deserves to have justice.

Here too innocent people suffer collateral damage only because they were guided by the conventional wisdom of their day. What today is seen as a cover-up was in those days considered to be standard operating procedure.

And how do we judge the reactions of differing communities? Should we judge one community by a higher standard than another?

And what about differing acts? Is all inappropriate contact the same?

I once asked this of a psychologist who treats sexually abused children. He answered my question with a question. I asked him if a Rebbe would innocently playfully pat a fully clothed child on rear end – sort of the way a football coach might be seen doing from time to time to his players - is that considered sex abuse? His answer was the following: If someone came up to me and offered me money to pat my fully clothed child on the rear, would I take it and allow him to do it?

Well, put that way, of course not. The offer to pay me would show that his entire purpose was to get sexual gratification for it. But if a teacher did it in the same playful way that a football coach might – without any sexual intent, it would not bother me at all. Nor do I think a child would suffer traumatically from it in that way. But this educated professional did not make any distinction.

Which is why teachers can no longer give a young kindergarten child a hug in the classroom. A teacher can in theory be dismissed for that. Some advocates might even support reporting it to the police. At least that was my impression from talking to that psychologist.

Another thing. How do we treat a victim who was abused in one of the lesser forms of abuse and then went on to have a normal life… a successful career. A successful marriage. Wonderful well adjusted children. Many years later he comes forward with his accusations and says he suffered emotionally because of it over the years. He makes his views public and proceeds to sue the institution. Is that Justice too?

What if the abuse was of the type described in a Yeshiva University affiliated high school where a principal wrestled with a few chosen students and the students could feel his erection through their clothing. Yes. It is absolutely disgusting. But is it the same as a more aggressive form of sexual abuse? Does it have the same effect on victims?

I don’t know. I’m just asking questions.

Should a university be sued because their officials at that time misread those events as relatively harmless… or perhaps disbelieving them for a while until they finally took action to fire him?

Should a university be sued for not reporting the abuser to the police at the time? Would the police even have prosecuted this type of abuse?

Was keeping these events quiet unusual for that day?

Is it fair to say that this should be seen as cover-up to protect the university’s reputation? And even so, is there anything wrong with that if officials truly believed that the victim would not be harmed by covering it up… or perhaps might even benefit by it because he would be spared the ordeal of being embarrsed publicly? That is what the thinking was like then.

And finally should a well adjusted victim seek financial reward because he was abused in this way over 20 years ago or more earlier? Does a well adjusted victim of a 20 year old abuse need to be made whole in this manner? Is there any real justice here?

I am not saying he shouldn’t. Again - I am just asking questions.

Some abuse is obvious and devastating. The devastation can last a lifetime. Sometimes that lifetime can be short because of a suicide resulting from a feeling of despair and hopelessness! There is no question that those victims need to heal. Their lives have been turned upside down. Time should not be a factor for them. But I do not see all types of sexual abuse being the same… nor affecting victims in the same way.

I am not absolving YU officials both past and present from their responsibilities here. I am in favor of an investigation into the facts of those recent accusations by late coming victims. I am also in favor of full disclosure of that investigation. YU will be better off by full disclosure, and apologizing for past sins – even if their intentions at the time were not bad. But I am also in favor of justice for all… and not only the victim.

As in most things, sexual abuse is not always a black in white issue. There are unknowns about where to draw lines. There are too many factors to consider in each case. No two cases are alike nor should they be treated that way.

As I said at the outset, I am perplexed about what is right and wrong in some cases. As much as I want to see justice for victims of abuse - the last thing I want to see is an injustice in that cause.