By Melanie Lidman (The Jerusalem Post)
March 6, 2013
It seems like a weekly occurrence – bold headlines splayed across the pages of newspapers: “Haredi man arrested for sexually abusing daughter”; “Haredi bus driver molested children for 6 years”; “Haredi community attempted to cover up serial pedophile.”
Despite the prevalence of these stories, Rabbi Avinoam Cohen, the director of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s Torah-Observant Prisoner Rehabilitation Program, believes the haredi community is doing a better job of dealing with the issue of pedophilia.
“Slowly they’re starting to understand, there’s a type of movement,” said Cohen, who deals with around 60 ultra- Orthodox prisoners at a time who have agreed to go through a personalized rehabilitation process. “It’s not like it was five or eight years ago. They’re not going to leave their children with someone like this [who is known to have a problem], or they will go to the police.”
While the more extreme sects, including Toldot Aharon or Natorei Karta, refuse to deal with police or any secular authorities, awareness of the issue and the proper response is getting better among mainstream haredim, said Cohen in a recent interview.
“The victims [of sexual abuse] caused this movement,” he said. “They feel it in their bones that it’s getting better. The awareness has increased because of the publicity about the incidents, and the children who are failing out of school and no one understands why.”
Cohen works to implement successful rehabilitation programs for pedophiles to ensure they don’t re-offend, a difficult struggle given the large numbers of unsupervised children in haredi neighborhoods.
T., 38, says he sexually abused over 20 children in Jerusalem during a six-year period. T., who has mild developmental disabilities, tried to tell his family what was going on, but they dismissed it as “total fantasy.” It was the same response they gave him when, as a nine-year-old boy, he told them that an older man from another haredi sect had tried to rape him on the way to an evening study session.
“[My father] said it’s my imagination. They never believed me at home. I had no one to talk to,” he said during an interview in Cohen’s Jerusalem office.
According to Cohen, more than 70 percent of men who sexually abuse children were victims of sexual assault themselves.
The haredi community’s refusal to deal with the problem in the past has created generations of victims.
T. said he had been confused after the attack, and had no guidance.
“If an older person is allowed to do this to me, then maybe I can do this to others,” he said.
“I didn’t know if it was forbidden or not. But someone did it to me, so I thought I could do it to someone else.”
Cohen, who was raised secular but has been haredi for over 20 years, explained that some haredi parents are so overwhelmed by the number of children they have that they can’t adequately deal with the needs of each one, especially if one requires special assistance following abuse.
Additionally the fact that a child has been sexually abused can sometimes harm the matchmaking chances of other siblings.
“People say, ‘Maybe the family isn’t modest, and this kid was doing something immodest, and that’s why this child was abused,’” Cohen explained.
But a trusted adult or parent ignoring a child who says they were sexually abused, or, as in T.’s case, trying to convince him it didn’t happen, “is worse than the original abuse,” the rabbi continued.
That attitude, at least among the less extremist haredi communities, is changing. Cohen spares no words in his anger over rabbis who allow known sex offenders to move to another community, rather than deal with police.
“They need to put rabbis who don’t go to police in prison,” he said. “I can think of at least 20 religious commandments that they’re breaking.”
Another remaining challenge is dealing with convicted offenders who have served jail time and then return to the community. Even if they don’t return to their own community, they will still likely be in a neighborhood with many children.
“Now I’ve been out [of prison] for a year, and I have supervision,” said Y., 43, who was convicted for abusing two girls over a number of months.
“Every day the struggle is renewed. Especially in the haredi areas, there’s small girls and teenage girls everywhere. You can’t get away from this. And you need to know how to be a human being and walk among the community,” he said.
“Sometimes I have no control over it – I’m going through an alleyway and suddenly a bus lets off, like, 100 girls,” he continued. “Every day is a test. Every hour of the morning and night. I have to deal with this all the time.”
Cohen explained that this was the part where a religious upbringing could actually assist offenders in their rehabilitation.
In halfway houses and private or group therapy, convicted sex offenders learn both tools to overcome their inclinations, and religious texts that promote the ideas of inner strength, not harming others, willpower and asking for forgiveness. Often, the former prisoners are able to relate strongly to the idea of text study, something with which they grew up, and find it the most influential part of their therapy.
Y., who lost custody of his five children after he was convicted, said that haredim also strongly subscribe to the idea of teshuva, or repentance and subsequent forgiveness.
“There’s compassion in our community, even for people who did things in the past,” he said.
Not all prisoners receive rehabilitation. Prison rabbis must recommend a prisoner as a good candidate for rehabilitation in the last third of their prison sentence. Cohen, along with another three staff members, is responsible for coordinating a personalized program for each prisoner, which can include stays in halfway houses, therapy or drugs – including monthly injections known as chemical castration, which work to remove any sexual inclinations. Most sexual offenders have regular supervision for a year, but afterward have no assistance.
Also, a limited budget from the Welfare and Social Services Ministry means that Cohen only has enough staff to deal with around 60 prisoners or ex-prisoners at a time – a small percentage of the number of people who could use the services.
Jerusalem police don’t keep statistics about haredi sex offenders versus non-haredi sex offenders. But in 2012, there were 823 complaints of sexual abuse across the capital – a 23.6% increase from 666 incidents in 2011. Part of the dramatic increase could be due to more people reporting incidents to the police that they would previously have hidden within their communities, though it is difficult to tell.
“There is an improvement with the reactions to the incidents,” said Cohen.
“They’re saying, ‘We won’t allow this here.’ It’s the start. We’re still far from breaking the cycle, but we’re starting to break it.”