Monday, July 22, 2013

This is a column about Orthodox Jews!

....And the way they’ve played out in Orthodox Judaism illustrates anew that religion isn’t always the higher ground and safer harbor it purports to be. It can also be a self-preserving haven for wrongdoing....

The Faithful’s Failings

The men were spiritual leaders, held up before the children around them as wise and righteous and right. So they had special access to those kids. Special sway.

And when they exploited it by sexually abusing the children, according to civil and criminal cases from different places and periods, they were protected by their lofty stations and by the caretakers of their faith. The children’s accusations were met with skepticism. The community of the faithful either couldn’t believe what had happened or didn’t want it exposed to public view: why give outsiders a fresh cause to be critical? So the unpleasantness was hushed up.

This is not a column about the Catholic Church.

This is a column about Orthodox Jews, who have recently had similar misdeeds exposed, similar cover-ups revealed.

And I’m writing it, yes, because the Catholic Church over the last two decades has absorbed the bulk of journalistic attention, my own included, in terms of child sexual abuse. There are compelling reasons that’s been so: Catholicism has more than one billion nominal adherents worldwide; endows its clerics with a degree of mysticism that many other denominations don’t; and is just centralized enough for scattered cover-ups to coalesce into something more like a conspiracy. The pattern of criminality and evasion has been staggering.

But some of the same dynamics that fed the crisis in Catholicism — an aloof patriarchy, an insularity verging on superiority, a disinclination to get secular officials involved — exist elsewhere. And the way they’ve played out in Orthodox Judaism illustrates anew that religion isn’t always the higher ground and safer harbor it purports to be. It can also be a self-preserving haven for wrongdoing.

Early this month, 19 former students of the Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan filed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by two rabbis in the 1970s and 1980s who continued to work there even after molestation complaints. The rabbis were also allowed to move on to new employment without ever being held accountable. School administrators, the lawsuit alleges, elected not to report anything to the police.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the president of Yeshiva at the time, admitted as much in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward. He said that when accusations against a faculty member were “an open-and-shut case,” he’d let the accused person “go quietly.”

Back then there was less alarm about, and understanding of, child molestation, he said. Back then he was also steering Yeshiva through grave financial hardship. A sex-abuse scandal wouldn’t have been a great fund-raising tool.

“The school made the conscious and craven decision to protect its reputation,” Kevin Mulhearn, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told me Monday.

Is such a defensive mind-set really a relic of a less enlightened past? Earlier this year a prominent scholar at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, was caught on audiotape at a conference in London telling Orthodox leaders that Jewish communities should set up their own review boards to evaluate any complaints of child sexual abuse and determine whether to bother with the police. This contradicts state laws on mandatory reporting for teachers, counselors, physicians and such.

Schachter further discouraged police involvement by warning that accused abusers could wind up “in a cell together with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.” Shvartze is a harshly derogatory racial term. Yeshiva University condemned the remarks but seemingly didn’t discipline Schachter, who didn’t respond to my request Monday for comment. Neither did Rabbi Lamm.

Rabbi Schachter’s aversion to law enforcement isn’t isolated. The ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America has taken the position that observant Jews should get a green light from a rabbi before notifying police about suspected molestation. It’s precisely this sort of internal policing that the Catholic Church did so disastrously, leaving abusers unpunished and children in harm’s way.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in particular have prioritized their image and independence over justice. They have shunned Jews who took accusations outside their communities; in fact, Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, has cited that as a reason for minimizing publicity around child sexual abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. But over the weekend he changed tacks and gave The New York Post the names of some 40 convicted people.

Community intimidation is why 17 of the 19 plaintiffs in the Yeshiva case are identified only as John Doe, said Mulhearn, their lawyer, who mentioned another insidious wrinkle reminiscent of Catholic cases.

One of the abusers, he said, used religion itself to muffle a few abused boys. The rabbi allegedly invoked the Holocaust, which their parents had survived, telling the boys not to cause mom or dad any more suffering with a public stink.


Sexual Abuse & Addiction

Children who survive abuse and neglect learn shame from their earliest days. Every one of us was placed at greater risk of abusing substances because we survived traumatic losses at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and nurture us. Yet we live in a world that does not grasp the disease of addiction and are afraid to hear our stories.

Lesser known fact about Sigmund Freud – early in his career he was all but laughed out of his field for suggesting that sexual abuse within families was a significant social problem. To remain respected he recanted his findings. Toward the end of his career he went back to his original claims and backed them up, demonstrating that this ugliness was indeed not simply at the fringes of society.

We’ve known for many decades now that sexual abuse is a significant social problem. We’ve made gains in our efforts to create awareness and reduce other forms of sexual assault, but we remain largely at a loss with regard to what happens within a family unit. Our laws treat children as property and we continue to maintain startlingly underfunded and overworked Child Protective Services as our primary form of intervention.

Our discomfort acknowledging the prevalence of sexual abuse is evident in the language we use. Media reports tend to minimize its significance and impact. One rarely reads of a child being raped. One reads of a child being “molested.” I’m repulsed every time I read about a child of 12 or 13 who engaged in “sex” or “sexual acts”, when in fact a child of this age is incapable of consent.

We water down and minimize because we are sickened to imagine what so many children experience. We cannot expect to make significant gains with social problems we’re uncomfortable discussing. It’s additionally problematic that our social problems are intimately connected to each other. As we struggle to make progress in prevention and intervention of substance abuse; we overlook the frequently underlying dynamics of surviving childhood sexual abuse.

We have language for “gateway drugs” but fail to identify gateway experiences. There’s little or no shame in admitting to alcohol or marijuana use. There are a myriad of obstacles to discussing a history of sexual abuse. The degree to which surviving traumatic experiences in childhood lead us toward addiction and alcoholism cannot be overstated.

We need to re-conceptualize “dual diagnosis treatment” as existing within a social context that perpetuates shame. We have language for disgrace but not for transformation. I have the honor of serving what our society labels as: drunks, junkies, druggies, whores, and welfare cases, who are characterized as immoral, weak, lazy, and crazy.

What I often see professionally are the combined effects of residual grooming, (the molding processes that manipulate a child’s understanding of their abuse), the excessive loyalty of being an Adult Child Of An Alcoholic/Addict (ACOA) and the social stigmas of living with addiction(s), mental health conditions, and being a survivor of what remain unspeakable acts. Each of these individually can be debilitating. Their combined impact requires that the survivor progressively claim personal power and develop a new identity.

Children who survive abuse and neglect learn shame from their earliest days. Every one of us was placed at greater risk of abusing substances because we survived traumatic losses at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and nurture us. Yet we live in a world that does not grasp the disease of addiction and are afraid to hear our stories.

We search for those with similar experiences. We find people we relate to in self help programs and group therapy. We seek out clinicians who get us. Bit by bit, we come to understand ourselves and we cease our self destruction, hiding, and hopelessness. We learn to speak the unspeakable. We accept that we need not be ashamed of what was inflicted upon us. We learn to live one day at a time.

We come to take pride in what we incrementally overcome and refuse to allow anyone but ourselves the right to define us. We come to accept that we are forever works in progress and that “failure” only occurs when we stop trying.

The outside world rarely learns of our successes. Our milestones occur privately in therapists offices, in AA, and NA. We are supported by kindred spirits and we celebrate with only the closest and most trusted of loved ones.

The average person will never experience the joy of witnessing transformation, much less achieve it for themselves. They cannot grasp the heroism of maintaining sobriety, overcoming the feeling of never being clean, or the guts it takes to break free of unhealthy loyalties. We remain marginalized and misunderstood. Mores the pity, for we are the very best of people.

When at last we are no longer stigmatized, we will revolutionize. Too many of our brothers and sisters become forever buried under the shame of judgment. What we survived does not define us. Our resilience and determination to achieve the lives we want does.