Op-Ed: Response To Vaad Harabbonim Rabbinical Council Of Greater Baltimore: "Abuse In Our Community"

New York
April 18, 2007

In the wake of recent reporting on sexual abuse within the Orthodox world it is heartening to read a letter signed by so many distinguished rabbis from Baltimore acknowledging the problem in their community, as well as their own failure to deal with it adequately in the past. The remorse expressed in the April 11, 2007 letter, titled "Abuse in Our Community," comes across as sincere and heartfelt, and we believe it will go far in enabling those whose lives have been irrevocably affected by abuse - and the woefully inadequate and typically destructive response to it by our religious leaders - to move forward. However, as both survivors of abuse and advocates, we nonetheless find some things about this letter extremely troubling.

For example, on the one hand, the rabbis explicitly acknowledge that a child molester is a rodef, and cite the clear and unambiguous halachic directive that one must report a rodef to the police. At the same time, they also instruct the reader to respond to complaints of abuse "compassionately, deliberately and with competent rabbinic and/or professional guidance." Which is it? Go straight to the police, so that they may use their professional training to determine the credibility of the allegations, or to the rabbonim, whom they openly acknowledge have made "many terrible mistakes" in handling these situations in the past. Indeed, one need only look at the number of accused per capita in Baltimore to grasp the failure of the community's leadership on this issue.

It is our sincere hope that the Baltimore rabbis are not suggesting that complaints, allegations or accusations of sexual abuse be vetted by the rabbonim before they are brought to the authorities. Aside from being in clear violation of applicable law, such a position would be in direct contradiction to the apparent message contained in the main body of the letter, and a recipe for the continuation of a status quo that has resulted in not hundreds, but many thousands, of ruined lives.

Of equal concern to us is the "action point" that posits the development of an apparently community-administered "management protocol" for "established or strongly suspected" abusers. While we do not deny the importance of effective treatment for and community monitoring of those who commit abuse, the implication here seems to be that the rabbonim will once again attempt to manage an issue they have already acknowledged is well outside their expertise. In fact, we are unclear as to why any rabbonim would need to be involved at all in a process where all accusations are to be brought to the authorities for investigation and, if deemed warranted by the facts, adjudication.

While this long overdue acknowledgement of the devastating problem of sexual abuse in our community is a very important first step - not only for survivors, but for the community as a whole - absent a clear and unequivocal statement from the rabbonim that all allegations of abuse be brought directly to the police immediately, and without prior consultation with any rabbi, we cannot feel confident that this letter is anything more than a cynical attempt - brought on by external pressure - to pay lip service to change while in fact advocating for business as usual.

Rabbonim: there is only one thing for you to say to the public. "We are sorry for our failures in the past and have learned that we have no right to get involved in situations of abuse. Raboisei, take all allegations and complaints directly to the police."

Rabbonim: there is only one thing for you to do in situations of abuse. Nothing.