I could not believe my eyes.
I was a young prosecutor handling night court arraignments. Basically, I was formally accusing each defendant of a crime and then asking for bail. The courtroom that night was packed with Hasidim, each one trying to get my attention. And, then, I found out why. Next up?
A 23-year-old yeshiva student accused of sexually abusing his 10-year- old nephew.
The audience included his family, friends, rabbis, teachers, neighbors and community leaders, each calling me over with a pssst. They all wanted to press me for the release of the defendant. The message was the same; the approach subtly different. Some appealed to my Jewish sounding name. Others wanted me to know that my unborn children would never marry if I did not consent to the defendant’s release. A couple of people cursed me. Some implied that my career as a prosecutor would meet an untimely death if I did not “do the right thing.”
I had to make some phone calls.
And, then word came down from the top. No special favors. No deviation from the bail guidelines. I asked for, and received, an un-meetable bail. Yaakov was spending Shavuot in the hoosegow. But, I was not satisfied.
I wanted to indict everyone in the room as a co-conspirator.
A few years earlier, my best friend asked me to testify before a beit din brought by Baruch Lanner.My friend was being accused of defamation for alerting the public to Lanner’s sexual and physical abuse of children. I had some information and agreed to testify. And, then the phone calls began—rabbis, friends, people of influence imploring me not to appear before the tribunal. I didn’t care. I was determined. Then, I was told that one of my high school teachers would be sitting at Lanner’s table and would discredit me in a way that had proven extremely successful in discrediting other witnesses. He had the goods on me since I had been a well-documented troublemaker in school. Of course, disrupting history class should have no impact on the veracity of my testimony, but the warning was clear: I would do more damage than good to the case. And, in a decision that has since landed on the list of my top two lifetime regrets, I withdrew from the beit din.
My friend lost and had to apologize publically to a monster. I have never recovered from my disloyalty and cowardice. He died young.
These long-suppressed memories clawed their way back into my consciousness in recent months as the Jewish community has been rocked with a series of sex abuse scandals. I do not have much to say about the alleged abusers. They are defective and need permanent supervision. Here’s why: science confirms that they will never be cured. Even if physically restrained, their inclinations cannot be controlled. Are they capable of repentance and t’shuva? I don’t know, but I suggest that anyone who claims to know the answer to that question has an agenda. God alone knows what is inside our hearts. Lanner was among the most charismatic showmen in modern Jewish history. Only those who supported and loved him through his crimes and tribulations are ready to declare him repentant. And, you will excuse me if I am skeptical of their bias.
But, there is a special place in hell for those among us who condone, excuse, facilitate, or ignore the physical or sexual abuse of our children. And, the penthouse of that place is reserved for anyone tasked with educating and protecting children but who dare place the interests of the abusers over young putative victims. What’s that? You don’t want to offend the convicted pedophile? Don’t want to embarrass him? You’re ready to accept his half-witted declarations of regret and t’shuva? You credit his contributions to society and Judaism?
Here’s the thing. You are ten levels worse than the pedophile. You know why? Because he likely cannot help himself. He is sick and demented. You, however, are a misguided enabler of sexual abuse. You are a far greater threat to my children than any abuser because you lend credibility and mitigation to his misdeeds. Your message is that he can be forgiven and forgotten. But, you have no right to make that declaration, not only because you are not a victim, but because you have no basis for your opinion other than your relationship to the abuser or your liberal acceptance of any semblance of repentance.
I am not a victim so I would never presume to speak on anyone’s behalf. But before I can accept the public embrace of a known abuser, before I normalize relations with someone who has left a path of destroyed lives in his wake, I would like to hear a public apology; a credible acknowledgment of the horrors wreaked upon the innocent. I would like to hear from the victims to discover if any actual attempts were made by their abuser at legitimate repentance. I would like to know that there has been real progress in therapy. Finally, I would insist on knowing what efforts have been made to contribute in a meaningful way to the community, and have the abused been helped in any way. But, hey, that’s just me.
The tragedy of the Lanner story is not Lanner. It is of a beit din, a youth organization, a yeshiva high school, a national orthodox organization, a school psychologist, a troupe of loyal rabbis (some are still teaching in the yeshiva system) and many others who enabled 10 more years of victims and who, today, are nobly ready to let bygones be bygones. Some, like the OU, have taken steps to change the way they do business in a nod to the outrage and cycle of mistrust. But, others continue to facilitate and enable the abusers, to the detriment of the victims and potential victims. If you think I am talking about any specific person, you are wrong. But, here’s my thinking. If the choice is between forgiveness and compassion, on the one hand, or ultra-vigilant protection of our children, on the other hand, I land on the side of the children every single time. Let God forgive the pedophiles. Let their families and friends support them.
But if I am entrusting my children to you, I want to know that there are no circumstances, no excuses, no justifications that will lead you to err on the side of the abuser.
Ari Weisbrot is a prominent litigator in New York and New Jersey, and moonlights as an occasional writer. You can find his popular blog at ariweisbrot.com -- Ari grew up in Teaneck and lives in New Milford.