Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Orthodox Insist Sex Abuse Claims Go to Rabbis
The Times reports followed years of earlier reporting by the Forward, New York’s Jewish Week and other outlets on the issue. In some cases, alleged victims or their parents who went to local rabbis to report abuse were told to keep quiet or suffer severe consequences, or even admonished for raising such charges.
But in the wake of the high-profile attention the Times’ reports generated, even the Brooklyn DA has now forcefully shifted his earlier stance.
In a May 17 interview with NY1, Hynes said rabbis “had no authority” to screen cases of abuse. He said that he told Zwiebel during a meeting last year, “As soon as there’s a complaint of sexual abuse, I expect my office to be… contacted immediately.”
“There was never, ever a suggestion by me that rabbis should filter cases,” Hynes said. He added that a rabbi who dissuades someone from reporting abuse could “end up in handcuffs” if the case turned out to be credible.
Indeed, a few days after his NY1 interview, Hynes himself appeared to backtrack. In a May 20 interview on WABC radio, the DA admitted that if a rabbi counsels an ultra-Orthodox Jew not to report abuse but does not threaten that person, “there is nothing I can do about that.”
Zwiebel acknowledged tensions between secular legal requirements and Jewish law. But he said the community was duty-bound to follow the rulings of rabbinic leaders.
Central to the issue for Agudath is mesirah, the prohibition in Jewish law against informing on a fellow Jew to the authorities. This religious principle flourished in Eastern Europe in centuries past, when Jews lived in ghettoes ruled by hostile, often anti-Semitic governments. But Zwiebel said the notion that mesirah doesn’t apply in modern-day democracies, where there is a fair criminal justice system, is “a minority view” among top rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox world. “The majority view is, there is a prohibition against mesirah,” Zwiebel said.
Zwiebel, whose group represents ultra-traditionalists, believes that Agudath made progress when it announced last year that reporting a Jew for sexual abuse did not constitute mesirah as long as reasonable suspicion for the allegations had, in a rabbi’s judgment, been attained. Agudath’s position, as laid out then, was that a person who had personally suffered or witnessed abuse could report directly to the authorities. For others, the hurdle posed by mesirah remained.
Zwiebel seemed genuinely distressed that such a stance has now led his organization to be “portrayed as being in the camp of molester protectors.” Yet he and his director of communications, Rabbi Avi Shafran, peppered the hour-long interview with references to the damage that could be done by a false allegation.
Fetching a manila folder from his desk, Zwiebel read in Hebrew from an edict issued last year by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a widely revered talmudic authority based in Israel.
In the excerpt, the 102-year-old Elyashiv warned that a “bitter” student could wrongly accuse a teacher of abuse, putting that teacher in “a situation where he would rather be dead than alive.”
Asked how a rabbi could ascertain whether a child is lying, Shafran said, “There are certain subtle [signs] in a child that show whether the child is fantasizing.” He said these indicators included a child’s tone of voice or specific things he or she says.