A Child Abandoned Once Again: Refocusing the Discussion of Ohel vs. The Jewish Week

by Asher Lipner, Ph.D. • Special to FailedMessiah.com
September 6, 2011

Hella Winston, after months of painstaking research and investigation, published a series of articles in the Jewish Week earlier this year illuminating several cases in which Ohel Children's Home and Family Services falied to warn the community about confessed child molesters, and quoting me about a case in which it discouraged its workers from reporting child sexual abuse to the authorities.These revelations have sparked a flurry of discussions in the media, on internet blogs, in paid "advertorials" by Ohel, and in a host of meetings and telephone calls of professionals, child advocates and concerned community members to which I have been privy. As Ohel's policies and practices continue to be called into question, the intense dialogue and discussion about what is expected by the community of such a valuable and important organization can only lead to positive change. But I fear that the most important issue that has come to light has been lost in a war of words.

First, a synopsis:

1. The issue of personal credibility has been a particularly vociferous one, with Ohel unfortunately choosing to "shoot the messenger" rather than address, investigate and confront the challenges of the message. Personally, I freely admit that I am one of many current and former employees who have been frustrated with and have even felt mistreated by Ohel. Others have also contacted the Jewish Week to disclose cases of being discouraged from reporting child abuse and other inappropriate employee treatment. So far, I am the only one brave (or stupid) enough to use my name and risk the wrath of the communal Goliath that is readily willing and financially able to spend thousands of dollars of community money on personal attack ads. But I can vouch for all the other "disgruntled" employees that we would all be a lot more "gruntled," if Ohel would create safe avenues for its staff to address their grievances with management, and experiences of employer-abuse with the Board of Directors or an oversight committee, without fearing retribution from Ohel management.

2. Ohel has gone to great lengths in their advertisements to defend themselves against charges that they have broken mandated reporting laws by revealing what they consider legal loopholes. Some are based on real issues, like in cases when a child molester's identity is protected by HIPPA confidentiality laws (although there are exceptions in the case of public safety concerns) and some are fabricated, like when the molester is mentally ill, which is no way an exception to the rule that requires reporting. While Ohel has publicized that it "welcomes" stricter mandated reporting laws, it has supported Agudath Israel of America – the only religious group in all of New York State to oppose a bill mandating clergy to report.

3. A recently published book on sexual abuse in the Jewish community that was co-edited by David Mandel (Ohel's CEO) states that it is "understandable" that Orthodox professionals who are mandated by law to report abuse nevertheless feel hindered by cultural taboo from doing so. In reality, it is more than a taboo; the rabbis, including Ohel's "morah d'asra" Rabbi Dovid Cohen quoted in Mandel's book, have exhorted professionals to flout the law and consult a rabbi before reporting suspicions of abuse. The book also echoes the Agudah position admonishing parents that if molestation occurs at school, they should report only to the principal and not tell other parents, because it is a "private matter." (BREAKING THE SILENCE: SEXUAL ABUSE IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY). Furthermore, Ohel's ad suggests that if one of their employees does choose to follow his or her own conscience and report suspicions to child protective services, "reports may be made anonymously, obviating any possible fear of retribution." (The truth is that in New York, it is illegal for an employee to report abuse without notifying their employing agency).

4. Ohel refuses to learn from the fiasco of the Catholic Church's shameful system of sheltering pedophile priests, or the doomed-to-failure attempts of the Beis Din of Yeshiva University that exonerated Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was later convicted in criminal court of child sexual abuse; and the failure of rabbinic panels in Lakewood, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Chicago, to solve the community problem of sex abuse "internally." Rather, Ohel is proudly helping set up yet another rabbinical committee to "deal with" (read: cover up for) sex crimes in the community of New Square.

The little boy

The principal reason for me putting pen to paper is to attempt to re-direct attention to what the Jewish Week story was really all about. Investigative journalism and communal activism can sometimes lead to hurt feelings. But there is one individual whose feelings have been hurt in this story more than anyone else's, and as often is the case, have been completely overlooked in all of the tumult.

At the time the story reported took place, the little boy written about was being taken into his mother's bed each night and being touched inappropriately. That a mother would commit such incestuous abusive acts against her own son is so shocking and inexplicable to most people, that there is a societal tendency to deny it or to think that it could only happen with psychotic mothers. Unfortunately this is not the reality. Scientific studies suggest that although most sexual abusers are male, there are a dangerous number of females (including many mothers) who molest children as well (estimated at 5% of those who abuse girls, and 20% of those who abuse boys).

Of the various relationships in which sexual abuse occurs, many psychologists are of the opinion that mother-son sexual abuse is the most emotionally devastating and traumatic of all. First of all, the problems of any woman-on-boy abuse are exacerbated by the false perception in society that boys and men always want sex, and that a boy is just being "initiated" into sex by an adult woman.

When the woman is the boy's mother, he often will disbelieve his own experience, trading in his reality for society's strong belief that "mothers don't act that way". Or he may assume that on some level he must have been the one who wanted it and even somehow initiated it, leaving the boy feeling guilty, ashamed and even crazy. Because he craves his mother's attention and enjoys being held and caressed, a son is especially confused and overwhelmed when his mother takes advantage of this and uses him for her own sexual gratification.

Dr. Richard Gartner, Ph.D. is the founder and past clinical director of the William Alonson White Institutes Sex Abuse Services. In his classic work "Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men," he notes that male survivors of maternal incestuous abuse often experience in life a sense of "specialness and entitlement, but that this exalted status is tenuous contingent, and provisional." The fact that they may get pleasure from the experience, causes many of these victims to have intense ambivalence and anxiety, and whenever something exciting in their lives occurs they experience dread that something terribly wrong is about to happen. Even for those who do not subscribe to Freud's theory of the Oedipal Complex and the importance of its safe resolution, there can be no question that the blurring of boundaries between the needs for nurturance and security of the child and the sexual needs of his first and most important care giver is inevitably disastrous for the child's emotional development.

The long term sequalae of this kind of trauma can include psychological conflicts about safety and security, trust and betrayal, intimacy and loneliness, anger and guilt, and shame and pride, as well as confusion about gender identity and sexual orientation (many survivors are forever turned off from sex with women). And as with every kind of survivor of child sexual abuse, the trauma engenders a heightened pre-disposition to a host of mental problems including mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide.

The horror of the Jewish Week's story lies in the fact that the very organization that has been established to come to the aid of boys like this betrayed him. If not for a conscientious worker in a psychiatric hospital, the boy would most likely still be living his nightmare. And if not for the Jewish Week's follow up story informing us that the mother is no longer is allowed unsupervised access to the child, there would be no way for anyone in the community to know if he is indeed currently safe.

Because we did not have sufficient information about the mother's current whereabouts, the Administration for Children Services would not even take a report from those of us who are concerned, despite the fact that we mentioned she was treated at Ohel. In fact, there is still no way to be reassured that the other relative who the Jewish Week reported also molested the boy has ever been reported to the authorities, and the poor boy may still not be out of the woods AS A RESULT.

According to the Jewish Week's sources, it seems that the youngster is not even currently being seen for psychiatric treatment. How much more must he endure until our community is willing to investigate and ensure his safety?

Instead of looking for loopholes in the mandated reporting laws, Jewish organizations and therapists need to start understanding the limits of the HIPPA confidentiality laws (especially in cases of public safety concerns). It is easy to see why Ohel has empathy and identifies with the child abuser who may feel hurt and ashamed when reading about her crimes in the newspaper. But Ohel needs to show more concern for the feelings of the victims of abuse, and less for the predators.

The very same verse in the Torah that mandates the keeping of confidences by all Jews, professional or not, "Thou shall not be a tale-bearer among your nation," ends with the commandment "Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor". In the recently released documentary "Standing Silent," about attempts by the media to expose cases of rabbinic cover up of sexual molestation in Baltimore, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski explains that the Torah is teaching us that when another person's safety is at stake we are morally obligated to always break confidentiality. Despite technical legal concerns, as Jews we answer to a Higher Authority. We need to do more, not less, than others to protect our children and not their abusers.

Asher Lipner is a psychologist and a well-known anti-child-sexual-abuse advocate based in Brooklyn.