Adam Dickter (The Jewish Week)
April 20, 2010
Ramping up the fight against sexual abuse of children in Brooklyn's Orthodox community, a volunteer patrol group is for the first time publicly advising the community to report suspected molesters to the police.
The group, Flatbush Shomrim, cited advice from rabbinic authorities in making the announcement.
"Report all suspicious activity to the police first by calling 911," reads an April 15 statement by Shomrim that was posted on the website Yeshiva World News.
After calling the police, the group then advises Flatbush residents to call Shomrim's confidential emergency hotline for advice. The same message also implores pedophiles to seek help.
"If you feel the need to abuse or behave inappropriately against someone, get help now!" it reads. "Therapy will help you. If you don't get help, you will be caught. When a call comes into our hotline we will respond and find you. In accordance with Daas Torah, you will be arrested and prosecuted."
How to handle cases of abuse within halachic communities —balancing the need to protect children with the traditional reluctance to subject a fellow Jew to the secular justice system — has been a flashpoint between abuse survivors, victims' families and activists on one side versus those who believe the problem can be handled within the community with spiritual counseling and behavioral therapy.
Reluctance to report Orthodox abusers led Brooklyn District Attorney's Charles J. Hynes to create a hotline, Kol Tzedek, intended to encourage victims to come forward.
The Shomrim message drew praise from Survivors for Justice, a group that has been critical of any Jewish communal effort against abuse that does not involve police.
"The Flatbush Shomrim's message will help people gain the courage to do the right thing and report abusers to the authorities," said the group's president, Ben Hirsch, in a statement. "Established halacha (Jewish Law) clearly dictates an obligation to protect our community by reporting pedophiles to the police."
Hirsch cited Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, a 100-year-old halachic arbiter in Jerusalem and a leader of the Degel Hatorah religious political party, as a proponent of reporting suspected abusers to the police.
"We are pleased that some, albeit unnamed, Flatbush ultra-Orthodox rabbis are now encouraging the reporting of sexual abuse to the police," Hirsch said. "We remain very troubled by the lack of courage shown by these local rabbis who choose to remain anonymous and the steadfast refusal of our rabbinic leadership to come out publicly in support of established halacha which mandates the reporting of abusers to the police.
In response to an inquiry by The Jewish Week, Shomrim founder Chaim Deutsch released a statement via e-mail that said, in part:
The Flatbush Shomrim sees firsthand what devastation abuse can cause, not only to the victims and their families, but to the community as a whole and even the perpetrators and their families.
Because of this, we must take a proactive role in educating parents about how to protect their children, this includes reporting abuse directly to the authorities. Our Rabbinical leaders have urged us to advise the community that it is not only halachically permissible, but mandated.
As of Tuesday Yeshiva World News was the only Orthodox news organization to publish the statement, which had been widely distributed.
Deutsch told The Jewish Week his hotline had been inundated with congratulatory calls since the post appeared, and some 18 comments below the item were all positive. One reader, identified as MazelKGH, wrote, "Albeit many years too late — It is about time!!"
Deutsch said the policy was not new and that in its 18 years Shomrim has always counseled those reporting abuse to go to the authorities. However, he said it was the first time the group has posted a public statement to that effect.
"Since it's before the summer, when you have children playing in the park, we felt it was appropriate to publicize what to look for and what to do," said Deutsch. "We felt it was time to send a message."
Ben Zion Twerski, an Orthodox psychotherapist, said that therapy for those who feel compelled to commit pedophilia and have yet to act can be successful in some cases, but that there are very few practitioners capable of carrying out such therapy. And for those who take on such patients, he said, it is difficult to predict whether the outcome will be successful.
"It's a question of estimating risk," he said. "We all want to reduce the risk to absolute zero, but how realistic is that?"
Deutsch said the organization usually gets about a dozen complaints a year involving sexual abuse and regularly consults with rabbinic authorities, which he declined to identify.
The Shomrim, which is not affiliated with similarly named community patrols in other Orthodox neighborhoods, primarily responds to quality-of-life concerns and enjoys good relations with local police commanders. Its members are trained to observe and report criminal activity and to perform light rescue work or first aid. During Passover the group organized hundreds of volunteers to search for an autistic boy who disappeared from his home and was later found by police on the subway.
Shomrim members are also trained to respond with sensitivity to cases involving possible domestic or sexual abuse. Deutsch said occasional seminars are held with mental health professionals, whom he declined to name.
Marci Hamilton, author of the book "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children" and a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School welcomed the Shomrim announcement.
"This is what every religious group should be doing," said Hamilton, who is an activist on behalf of a state law, stalled in the Legislature, that would suspend the statute of limitations for complaints of sexual abuse. "What has been disappointing in other religious groups like the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church is that their rule has been only going to authorities if state law requires [doing so.]
"Once we have religious groups saying go to the authorities we are going to have a lot more children being protected."
In addition to warning pedophiles, The Yeshiva World message also urges parents to encourage their kids to report inappropriate behavior by adults and warns them not to send children to park restrooms or on car-service trips unsupervised.
"The summer months are approaching and our children will be out on the streets," the Shomrim warn. "Teach them to protect themselves from being touched improperly or spoken to inappropriately. An offender's work may take just minutes. The effect it leaves lasts a lifetime."