Treating The Offenders

by The Jewish Week
March 2, 2000

David Mandel is apprehensive.

"This is the first time we're having a discussion like this," he says. "We're nervous."

Sitting beneath the airy skylight in a Borough Park conference room, Mandel, the chief executive officer of Ohel Children's Home and Family Services is lifting the veil on a program that has been quietly taking place for almost three years. It is not the type of program about which organizations typically send out press releases. The beneficiaries of the program are pedophiles, a group for whom society seems to have little sympathy and routinely treats with scorn while calling for merciless punishment.

Mandel himself admits his own mixed feelings. "If I was the parent of the victim," he says, "I would want [the offender] in jail." However, he continues, "there has to be some sort of alternative" to the slow-moving court system. "For the victim it may not be a satisfactory alternative. For the community it is." The program was born in early 1997, when District Attorney Charles Hynes approached Mandel with a request to create a specialized program for Orthodox child molesters.

It is difficult for many people to believe that members of this pious community could sexually abuse children. This denial is compounded by the reticence of the victims and their families in reporting such abuse. The almost wholesale silence of Orthodox victims, often fueled by a desire to protect children and their chances for a good shidduch, or marriage, means that religious pedophiles are rarely prosecuted.

Nevertheless, says Hynes, "there was a recognition in the community that there was a need for this. Just as we had to create a special program for batterers who are Orthodox, it was important to have a similar modality for those who are sex offenders."

But beyond denial, another obstacle obstructed the path toward dealing with these offenders. Those religious abusers who were reported proved unwilling to participate in non-culturally specific programs where, among other impediments, men and women were treated together."

There is not going to be an appropriate mix," explains Hynes, "if you put them in with a group that is not chasidic, that is not Orthodox." Ohel, he says, was the natural choice to chart the murky waters of Jewish child abuse as the organization had dealt with similarly difficult issues since its inception in 1969. And so it initiated the Offender Treatment Program, which now has 16 participants, all male, who receive weekly treatment in either group or individual settings. That determination is made, says Barry Horowitz, social work supervisor in the program, during a lengthy, "state of the art," assessment process which can last up to 15 hours over the course of six or seven sessions. It is preferable, Horowitz acknowledges, for the offender to take part in a group. "It helps them to use the group to see they are not the only people going through [this]," he says. "It is a great relief when they see it is not just them. It is a very powerful tool."

Ohel declined to allow a reporter to observe one of the sessions, or to talk to any of the participants, even anonymously. But, according to Horowitz, roughly half of the 16 pedophiles in the program have been through the court system and are receiving this treatment in lieu of incarceration. The remaining half is comprised of offenders whom the community pressured to seek help without notifying authorities. A very small number of men have joined the program of their own accord. Treatment is based on the Cognitive Behavioral Relapse Prevention Model. "This method," explains Horowitz, "looks at the thoughts, feelings, and actions [whereby the offender] gives himself the OK." However, this treatment does not seek to cure the offender. "Pedophilia is a mental illness." Most mental illnesses are curable, says Mandel. "Pedophilia, [however], is not curable."

As such, the social workers at the heart of this program aim "to teach the offender his patterns, his urges" and how to control them, says Horowitz. Their focus is on "teaching him alternatives as opposed to curing him." While treatment in this program lasts, minimally, two years, it can continue as long as five years, says Marcia Kesner, Ohel's director of Specialized Treatment Programs. No offender has received treatment in the Ohel program this long; it has only existed since 1997. And it is this brief duration which makes judging the program's success nearly impossible." We have not had any reported [new] offenses," says Horowitz. However, he elaborates, "the majority of times when offenses take place, we do not know."

Mandel concurs. "It would be a mistake," he says, "to say the offender treatment program works." It is clear, however, from research in the general population, that similar programs achieve a very low rate of recidivism among offenders. Hynes is therefore confident that the program will succeed." I am absolutely optimistic," he says. "If our programs have worked in non-Orthodox communities, there is no reason why it shouldn't work in the Orthodox community."

The treatment program has been initiated at a time when Ohel itself has been accused of sweeping child abuse under the carpet. Two young men who were once Ohel residents have accused a former counselor of subjecting them to a year of abuse, their complaints ignored until the man, Simcha Adler, was reportedly caught in the act in 1992. Adler was fired and received five years probation.

A former detective recently told the New York Post that an investigation of complaints about another Ohel counselor went nowhere because of stonewalling by Ohel. The organization denies the claims of ignoring complaints. Mandel insists the program has nothing to do with those cases, but is a response to Hynes' request. "That was the reason it was started," he said.

Mandel and his colleagues say they have decided to speak to the media for the first time about the program in order to promote awareness of the program for both victims and potential offenders. The hope is, explains Mandel, "that one victim who reads [this] will feel positive enough, encouraged enough, motivated enough to seek treatment." And the same, he says, goes for offenders. Further, he continues, "the victims of sexual abuse must know that they are not alone. Treatment makes a difference. Confidentiality is strictly maintained... and in the long-term could help them lead a better life."