Report Abuse to Police, Not Rabbis

By Rabbi Michael J. Broyde (Hirhurim blog)
January 16, 2013

I have been answering questions about the proper role of the Rabbinical Courts (bet din system) in the United States for nearly 20 years. One of the questions that I am sometimes asked is the role of the rabbinical courts when confronting allegations of abuse. My view – which I know is not the only one present even within the Modern Orthodox community – is simple and clear. There is no place for rabbinical courts when sexual or physical abuse is alleged against children or young adults.

My reasons are (at least to me) simple and clear, and boil down to five basic points.

  • Rabbinical Courts are ill equipped to deal with criminal allegations. They neither have the authority nor the expertise to make the kinds of factual determinations needed in such cases, nor to incarcerate those who pose a danger to others.
  • Halacha does not prohibit – at all and in any form – the use of secular authorities or courts to investigate, arrest and punish people who engage in such abuse. Maybe in an unjust government and a different time and place these issues might apply, but not in the United States.
  • There is no need to seek rabbinic license before making such a report to the police. Such reports to the police should be made as soon as possible and expert therapists, social workers and other professionals should be welcomed into our community to help address the consequences of child abuse.
  • It is good for the Orthodox community to promptly report child abuse to the police. A policy of promptly reporting all cases of child abuse to the police makes our community much less likely to be the victim of such conduct over the long term. People should have no fear of social stigma in filing such reports to the police, and anyone who stigmatizes those who make such reports is assisting in a terrible wrong in our community.
  • Not reporting such conduct frequently produces a desecration of God’s name when people assume the worst. There is often some sort of a cover up by Orthodox Jews when misconduct in the Orthodox community is alleged. Indeed, we are – for better or worse – a close-knit community and finding an unbiased and qualified rabbinical court for such allegations would be very difficult.

I have made these points many times and in many different settings over many years, going back nearly fifteen years, and to many people’s chagrin put them in writing more than a decade ago, both in Hebrew and in English. Indeed, these are the policies of the Beth Din of America, as well.

The problems that the Catholic church had and is having are directly caused by its decision to have its own religious courts investigate abuse allegations and not to report such allegations to the police. We should not make that mistake and when a person sees credible evidence of abuse, he must call the police (as I have done myself). In my view, Jewish law is clear and simple on this matter.

While I recognize that in some idealized version of the world, it might be better to have an address within our own community to go to to raise issues of sexual abuse of children and young adults, it is clear that in the world that we live in we cannot – and we should not – try.

Because I have been so clear on this matter for so many years, I was stunned by the recent allegations in the name of one of the victims in the Forward and repeated in an op-ed in the Jewish Week that I was somehow involved in covering up the allegations of abuse from nearly thirty years ago at Yeshiva University High School for Boys (which I myself attended from 1978 -1982).

This year, one of the victims claimed to the Forward that he told me about this abuse in the year 2000, and (he maintains) I told him there was no grounds for a bet din hearing. As I told the Forward, I have no recollection of any such conversation, and I certainly would recall anyone telling me that Rabbi George Finkelstein sexually touched him. Had I heard such a charge, I would have told the person to call the police and not to go to any bet din, as I expressed many times in many different contexts, for the reasons I explained above.

The Forward reported this as my response and I was surprised that it was not noted in the recent op-ed in the Jewish Week. Instead that article alleges that I should be “investigated” to examine whether as a dayan (judge) in the Beth Din of America I “dismissed his charges without giving him a proper hearing.” Putting aside that this op-ed neither quotes my published denial that this conversation even took place (I certainly would have remembered someone alleging that George Finklestein sexually abused them) nor my public ruling that as a matter of halacha anyone with such a claim should go – run – to the police, nor that as a mere dayan, I had no authority to grant or deny hearings, its basic framework of the problem and the solution is wrong.

Of course, I would have not given him a “hearing” in any bet din. Rabbinical courts should never hold hearings on allegations of child abuse.

We do not want rabbinical courts to hold hearings in the face of an abuse allegation. We want dayanim (rabbinical court judges) to encourage victims of abuse to go to the police and have the secular authorities conduct an investigation. If I had been told about this abuse, I certainly would have told the victim to call the police and file criminal charges as I have told others in similar situations. The last thing we in the Orthodox community want to do is empower our own rabbinical establishment with investigating criminal violations of the law. That is not our job and no one in the Modern Orthodox rabbinical establishment wants it.

Instead we trust the police and the district attorneys to honestly investigate, charge and convict abusers and our community is poorly served by rabbinical court involvement in allegations of criminal abuse. We welcome the secular authorities investigating matters of abuse.

Of course, we as a community need to build structures that make abuse unlikely and encourage its reporting – it is by the care for the vulnerable that God judges our community. While people in supervisory positions need to be trained to be vigilant to monitor for abuse and insure that we care for the vulnerable, we dare not assign to our own rabbinical courts the authority to hold hearings to determine if abuse occurred. That job belongs to the just and honest governmental authorities in the United States.

Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America.