Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon - We must never tolerate child abuse

We must never tolerate child abuse
By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

(UK) Jewish Chronicle
October 5, 2007

It has been a bad month for Anglicans. In the space of two weeks, a church choirmaster, Peter Halliday, then a vicar, David Smith, were convicted of crimes associated with paedophilia. As a Jew and a father, I read these stories in fear of what might be happening in some horrendous dark alleyway of our own community. I desperately want to believe that no God-fearing Jew could fall so low, but I know that keeping kosher provides no protection from the sin of child abuse.

Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the charismatic one-time hero of American Orthodox Union youth group NCSY, is languishing in jail, guilty of "sexual contact" with a minor. Other allegations suggest Lanner's career of abuse lasted 20 years and destroyed the childhoods of many. Meanwhile Baltimore's Jewish community is reeling as a slew of abuse allegations are levelled at the late principal of the city's Talmudical Academy. Again, the allegations are numerous and stretch over decades.

It is not that Jewish paedophilia is solely an Orthodox problem; both American Reform and Conservative denominations have suffered recent moments of shame, with Rabbis Jerrold Levy (Reform) and David Kaye (Conservative) currently serving time for offences relating to child sexual abuse. Yet the strictly Orthodox world has a particularly poor record of facing up to these appalling acts of depravity. Accusations against Rabbi Lanner first surfaced in 1989, but a court made up of leading rabbis from Yeshiva University failed to castigate him, instead attacking the complainant, Elie Hiller. It took 14 more years and another score of abuse allegations before the dayanim, or judges, recanted their position.

"I realise the terrible pain my deeds, or words, inflicted on Elie Hiller and other victims," said Rav Mordechai Willig, who sat on the rabbinical court, in 2003. "In retrospect we should have refused to hear the abuse case. We didn't realise that abusive behaviour could inhibit potential witnesses and distort the testimony of those who do appear." The rabbis, he was admitting, were out of their depth and should have called in experts, be they police or social workers.

It is not clear that anything has been learnt from this terrible case. Several key figures at the Harvard of the strictly Orthodox world, Brooklyn's Yeshiva Torah Temimah, are being sued for covering up allegations of abuse by a long-time teacher at the school. The accusation, which is denied, is that highly respected figures in the strictly Orthodox world refused to hear evidence against a rabbi. Since the first complainant came forward, many others have emerged and the rabbi at the centre of the furore is now facing criminal charges.

In Baltimore, accusations levelled at a long-time teacher have prompted Orthodox leader Rabbi Moshe Heinemann to sign a letter calling for more action in tackling abuse, while simultaneously calling for a boycott of the Jewish newspaper that made the accusations public.

It is easy, from a rabbinic perspective, to understand the reluctance to deal with accusations of sexual abuse. Rules against lashon hara — speaking ill — are designed to limit gossip, particularly if accusations are unfounded. Rabbis also wish to protect kavod harav — a sage's honour — and do not want to create a shandah, a scandal that could damage the community at large. But these principles come close to creating an abusers' charter.

More dangerous still is the issue of mesirah, turning to secular authorities, viewed by sections of the strictly Orthodox world as a kind of treason. Reluctance may be easy to understand, but it cannot be allowed to override other religious imperatives that guide those who lead religious communities — obligations to support the powerless, criticise that which demands criticism and protect the health and well-being of those we serve.

An unfounded accusation causes enormous distress, but we cannot risk even one case of a child victim's suffering being ignored. In the UK, all religious organisations, youth movements and Jewish social-service agencies need policies that set out how to deal with accusations of abuse in advance of any complaint; indeed, many excellent policies do exist. But we also need a cross-communal, inter-denominational commitment to establish and follow best practice. Outside of some excellent work with youth movements, supported by the UJIA, this does not happen. Furthermore, all denominations need to ensure that professionals trained in the secular world — police, social workers, psychologists and others — are called on to guide communal leaders who lack specific expertise and training in these areas.

This week, the United Synagogue has published a draft document on child protection, including how to deal with cases such as the release into the community of convicted child sex abuser and one-time barmitzvah tutor, Andrew Josephs . May they be blessed with courage and humility and may they never forget who they first need to protect.

Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue


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