Recently we were exposed to yet more revelations regarding how the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community and in particular its leadership respond to allegations of child sexual abuse.
In an exposé in Yediot Aharonot it was revealed that many rabbis advise and encourage victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and their families to not report these crimes to the police. Alternatively, they believe that allegations of child sexual abuse should be addressed internally, led by the rabbi. This was the view expressed by the vast majority of the rabbis interviewed.
In trying to dissuade the victims from going to the police, excuses in defense of the perpetrators often include “he has a wife and children so why make his entire family suffer?”, “the abuse happened many years ago,” “it was a moment of weakness,” “he’s a righteous, God-fearing person,” “you’ll be bringing shame on you, your family and our community,” “you’ll ruin your marriage prospects,” and so on.
That this misguided and morally reprehensible attitude still exists on the part of rabbis is of grave concern.
Not only does it lead to additional injustice being done to the victims but it also causes other children to be unnecessarily exposed to these abusers who often go on to re-offend. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do.
Many rabbis are simply unaware of or choose to ignore the prevalence of child sexual abuse. It is widely accepted that in the broader society – including in countries such as Israel, the US and Australia – one in three girls and one in five boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Moreover, on average it takes 25 years for victims/survivors to disclose their abuse to someone, with the estimated total of only 10 percent of all abuse victims ever disclosing it to anyone. These statistics not only reveal the alarming extent of this phenomenon that often occurs in the place where a child should feel the greatest confidence – in his home or his community – but also demonstrates the long-term and profound impact of child sexual abuse.
While there are no statistics that relate specifically to the Jewish community, and it seems unlikely that we will ever really know the precise numbers within the closed haredi community, significant anecdotal evidence suggests a consistent level of abuse. In fact, a range of factors suggests an even higher incidence of sexual abuse within certain segments of the Jewish community.
Unique attributes within the haredi community offer greater opportunity for abuse and cover-ups – for example, having large families, use of male mikveh (ritual bath-house), limited or no sexual education, desire to protect the reputations of leaders/rabbis and institutions, isolated communities that often reject the use of mainstream law enforcement, the existence of extreme taboo/stigma etc. This is highlighted by experts, some of whom believe that around 50% of Hassidic boys in Brooklyn are sexually abused.
We must not turn a blind eye to this phenomenon and we must deal with this issue profoundly and thoroughly.
Undoubtedly Judaism refers to incest with disgust, and the evidence is in one of the Torah readings placed in the significant hour in the middle of Yom Kippur. There is a major discrepancy between the way this issue is addressed in the Torah and by all the prominent rabbis, both the Rishonim and Acharonim, and the way it is addressed in practice. This gap is intolerable and must be closed.
The establishment of institutions such as Forum Takana is welcome, but unfortunately insufficient due to the profound nature of the problem. Protecting our children is a commandment of great importance, and in order to eradicate the evil from within it is incumbent upon the rabbis to be at the forefront of the struggle and not to sweep things under the carpet.
It is important to note that the rabbis surveyed in the Yediot article lead communities and respond to everyday queries by their congregations – whether about the issue of child sexual abuse or other matters. The investigation published needs to raise alarm bells and elicit a determined but sensitive response, through awareness of the unique needs of each community, for it to effectively deal with this phenomenon.
There is no doubt that we, as both a broader society and the Jewish community more specifically – including the haredi community – have made significant progress in addressing child sexual abuse within our midst. However, in response to the Yediot article, focusing on the Jewish community more broadly and the haredi community in particular, until we put the interests of our children first – their safety and well-being – and the welfare of victims and survivors who have endured sexual abuse as children, we will not make the sustainable progress that we so desperately need within the Jewish community globally. A child who is harmed in a place where they should feel the greatest security, in all likelihood will find it difficult to ever find a secure place in this world. Simply put, often these are life and death issues.
And putting the interests of the children, victims/ survivors and indeed our community front and center means that we must always support victims when they make a disclosure and encourage them to report their allegations to the police. In order to achieve this we must work in partnership with the communities, recognizing the uniqueness of each community, to create a common language with them. We must also work together with rabbis to build with them the appropriate tools to cope with this phenomenon.
Instead of treating the rabbis as part of the problem, hopefully they will be a part of the solution, leading the struggle.
Rabbi Michael Melchior is a former minister and MK (Meimad) and currently the founder and chairman of several organizations that work to facilitate social change in Israel. He also serves as a congregational rabbi in Jerusalem and as the Chief Rabbi of Norway.
Manny Waks is an international consultant and public advocate.
Both are Steering Committee members of a major international initiative addressing child sexual abuse within the Jewish community globally.