Pressure Mounts on Jewish Groups to Change Course in Sexual Abuse Cases

By Joseph Treitovsky  (The Jewish Voice)
August 31, 2016

Is there a divide in the Orthodox Rabbinate regarding preventing child sexual abuse?

In an unprecedented and crucially positive step forward, 300 Orthodox Rabbis from across the nation signed a proclamation regarding child safety in the Orthodox Jewish community. Synagogues and schools are called upon to adopt certain preventative measures outlined in the document to deter child abuse and child sexual abuse. The Rabbinic signatories consist of member Rabbis of the Orthodox Union (OU), Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Yeshiva University (YU).

Some of the proclamation's prominent signers include: Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beth Din, Beth Din of America, Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President, RCA, Rabbi Shalom Baum, President, RCA, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive VP Emeritus, OU, Rabbi Marc Penner, Dean, RIETS, YU, Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, Dean Emeritus, RIETS, YU, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, Rabbi, Young Israel of West Hempstead, NY, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, and Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Beth Jacob of Atlanta, GA, South Africa's Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein.

The proclamation commences by honoring the memories of individuals in the Orthodox Jewish community who tragically committed suicide as a result of enduring child sexual abuse. The gravity of this issue is linked in the proclamation to a passage in the Torah, "Do not stand by while your fellow's blood is being spilled" (Leviticus 19:16). Prominent signer Rabbi Hershel Billet, Rabbi, Young Israel of Woodmere, succinctly expresses the gravity of the effects of child sexual abuse, stating, "Every sexual abuser is a potential murderer. They destroy the souls of their victims and at times cause the death of their victims."

The Rabbinic signatories on the proclamation are united in their agreement that sex offenders should face the consequences deemed appropriate by secular authorities, rather than taken care of internally by community leaders. The proclamation stresses, "We condemn attempts to ignore allegations of child sexual abuse. These efforts are harmful, contrary to Jewish law, and immoral. The reporting of reasonable suspicions of all forms of child abuse and neglect directly and promptly to the civil authorities is a requirement of Jewish law."

Exclusive to this proclamation is the clear assertion that, "there is no need for people acting responsibly to seek rabbinic approval prior to reporting." This declaration is clearly backed by Torah law as clarified by Rabbi Billet. He notes that, "Since abuse of children is a life threatening crime, we must report immediately. We must trust responsible civil authorities in a just country to be able to separate fact from fiction."

Unfortunately, currently RIETS’s Senior Roshei Yeshivos, Rabbis Herschel Schachter and Mordechai Willig have refused to sign on the proclamation despite the large volume of prominent Rabbinic signers and many other prominent RIETS Roshei Yeshivos who have gladly signed on the proclamation. It is unclear if they will be composing their own proclamation.

This proclamation follows a similar Kol Koreh (public proclamation) signed by Rabbinical Judge, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst along with over 100 haredi rabbis in August 2015 affirming "that any individual with reasonable basis to suspect child abuse has a religious obligation to promptly notify the secular law enforcement of that information."

Some of that Kol Koreh’s signers include Rabbi Yechiel Perr, Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva of Far Rockaway/Derech Ayson Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Nota Greenblatt, dayan, posek, and rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola in Memphis; HaRav Dovid Goldwasser, shlita, Rabbi of Bnei Yitzchok in Brooklyn; Rabbi Dov Aharon Brisman, rosh beis din of B’datz Philadephia; Rabbi Peretz Steinberg, co-chairman of Bais Din Agudath Yisroel in Kew Garden Hills; Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Toras Chaim; Rabbi Kalman Epstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah in Queens; and Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, Rabbi, Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem.

In September 2015, Senior haredi halachic authority, Rabbi Dovid Cohen concurred on the “Headlines” radio program that one should report abuse allegations "directly" to the civil authorities and that it is unnecessary to receive a Rabbi's prior authorization. Rabbi Cohen went further to say that since child molesters inflict life-long trauma and pain on their victims it is halachically appropriate that they be meted out and serve life sentences in prison for their heinous crimes.

Tragically, not all rabbis are as outspoken and supportive in aggressively addressing and deterring child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community as the many Rabbis who have signed both proclamations. It has been reported that Agudath Israel of America has assisted in blocking important pieces of legislation to eliminate statute of limitations in the State of New York for prosecuting child sexual abuse crimes both criminally and civilly. Further, Elliot Pasik, president of Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, calls the lack of action on the bill to mandate private schools to fingerprint teachers “inexplicable” and attributes the Agudath Israel and Orthodox Union for blocking passage this important legislation.

Further, sources close to this matter in the Orthodox Jewish community who spoke on the condition of anonymity noted that Agudath Israel enables “shunning and ostracizing victims and protecting abusers and their institutions.” Agudath Israel of America and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah rabbinic members refused to sign on the Kol Koreh spearheaded by Rabbi Fuerst last year and to date have refrained from encouraging the reportage of child abuse allegations directly to the civil authorities. This advice is in direct contravention to Torah law and it is incumbent to report such cases as a moral imperative.

Rav Yosef Blau, Senior Mashgiach at YU/RIETS underscored the paramount importance of reporting abuse to the legal authorities and speaking out publicly against the perpetrators.

“At present when a victim goes to the authorities he or she and the victim’s family will be shunned by the community. A prominent Haredi rabbi in Israel, who is officially in favor of reporting abuse to the police told the mother of a victim that she has to accept the consequences that all of her children will be thrown out of the Yeshivos (religious private schools) that they attend,” he ruefully acknowledged.

He added that Jewish organizations often give their tacit approval to those menacing elements in the communities we dwell in who seek to ostracize members for simply reporting heinous acts of abuse to the law enforcement agencies. “An organization such as Aguda, will deny that they approve of ostracizing those who cooperate with authorities but the Aguda has never criticized the shunning. Aguda has publicly opposed any legislative attempt to change the current statute of limitations in New York, which prevents victims over 23 from initiating a criminal or civil complaint for childhood abuse.

Even when acknowledging that sexual abuse is a problem on the Orthodox community, rabbinic spokesmen for Aguda will devote most of their comments to criticize bloggers who publicize abuse as troublemakers out to attack Orthodox Judaism.”

Rabbi Dr. Leonard Matanky, prior President of the RCA agrees that in addition to creating policies, it is our responsibility to "work to assure that our schools, synagogues and institutions offer safe environments for our children and our families. We must stand up and support all who fight abuse and those who defend the abused." Underscoring the gravity of the need for reform, he warns, "Our Torah and our future depend on our strength and conviction to place our children first, and to heed the calls of our rabbinic leadership to report abuse to the authorities."

An attendee of the recent Torah Mesorah convention who chose to remain anonymous said that the Novominsker Rebbe, shlita, raised the issue of child sexual abuse but did so “in order to attack and dismiss both activists and bloggers “La’tzonai hador” who rightfully have issues with the way the Haredi community and the Aguda handles abuse.” He added that, “This is, of course, a very dangerous statement because it sends the message that the Haredi community is handling abuse just fine and there’s no reason to change the status quo.”

Dr. Michael Salamon, a psychologist who has counseled survivors of child sexual abuse says, “There is a belief that being someone who is orthodox means that you lead a lifestyle that is transformative in the sense that you avoid sin, especially this sin. These are the words that were written and told to me when I began to publicly confront the fact that abusers were sheltered in the Orthodox community”

He added that, “If the religious system is transformative, the logic goes, then it is impossible that anyone who is overtly Orthodox can be an abuser. This base belief, while not as strong as a decade ago still permeates. This approach allows the abuser to simply state that their accuser is lying, that they were not abused and are making it up and because they are religious and Orthodox, they should be believed.”

Dr. Salamon also speaks of the deleterious psychological effects on adults who were abused as children. “I am seeing several men - ranging in age from late teens to the 50's who carry the impact of abuse. Some of them never reported it, but many did. Those who reported it and were told to "forget it happened" or worse, "It never happened, you're making it up" have greater mental and physical damage. In order to heal you must name what is ailing you. Abuse is the silent ailment in certain communities.”