Jews must put aside fear of shaming their community, their families and themselves, as well as perceived prohibitions of turning to secular authorities, to fight a growing wave of child sexual abuse, speakers told an audience at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation.
Speakers addressing a packed sanctuary on March 31 made blunt, often harrowing assessments of childhood sexual abuse in Jewish communities, saying the problem is rampant and is too often ignored or denied outright.
There was a large Orthodox contingent in attendance, and speakers stressed that Orthodox and chassidic communities offer much resistance to dealing with the sexual abuse of children. It is time to end the silence, they said.
MC Benny Forer, a graduate of Ner Israel Yeshiva north of Toronto, and now a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, recounted how his best friend had been sexually abused and killed himself on Yom Kippur in 1993.
There is an “astonishing” amount of sexual abuse in Jewish circles, Forer said. “We have to stand up and say this is unacceptable.”
The session was organized by Jewish Community Watch (JCW), a five-year-old New York-based group that raises awareness of child sexual abuse, exposes abusers, and offers programs, referrals and services for victims and their families.
The organization gained recognition “throughout many Orthodox Jewish communities all over the world,” it states on its website. “The team has championed, through the backlash and resistance of a grandfather culture concerned more for the image of the community than the lives of the victims, to ensure that every Jewish victim of [abuse] has a place to be heard and to be validated.”
Orthodox Jews must not allow halachic terms to cover their unwillingness to face up to the issue, said Rabbi Yosef Blau, a mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
The term mesira, one who hands over a Jew to outside authorities and “is understood to describe a terrible individual, is misused,” Rabbi Blau said.
There are also “important exceptions” to lashon hara (hateful speech), he added.
“The Halachah indicates very clearly that [if] there is a danger to the community caused by the action of someone, and [that] the internal mechanism of the community cannot protect [it] from that individual without being permitted or obligated to utilize the secular authorities to ensure that people are protected,” Rabbi Blau said.
“We can’t allow justifications and rationalizations to get in the way.”
If a school where an abuser has taught, or a parent with knowledge of an abusive teacher does not pass along information about him, “each one of those bears responsibility for the abuse that’s going to follow,” Rabbi Blau said.
Det.-Const. Joel Manherz of the Toronto Police Service Sex Crimes Unit’s Child Exploitation Section took the audience through the mechanics of laying a police complaint.
Manherz is assigned to the case of Stephen Joseph Schacter, a former teacher at two Toronto-area Jewish day schools, who is facing several sex crime charges involving minors, based on witnesses having come forward.
“Finding the courage to come forward doesn’t mean finding the fortitude to call police,” Manherz said. “It means being resolute in your actions and words. It means being prepared for the possibility that people may know you have come forward with the intention of making your community a better and safer place to live.”
When it comes to giving evidence, “you are in control.”
He said that under Canadian law, there is no statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes involving children, and that teachers and clergy may be prosecuted themselves for failing to report such actions.
The evening also heard from the Orthodox father of a child who had been abused by his counsellor at a Jewish summer camp in New York state. The child came forward with the allegations three years after they happened, following bouts of depression and rebellious behaviour.
The effect on families of abused children can be devastating, the father said. “We need to be better educated,” he said. “We cannot rely on anyone else.”
In a stirring address, Meyer Seewald, who co-founded JCW with his brother Shneur in 2011, said the only way to combat child sexual abuse is first to admit it happens in the Jewish community.
Despite “much opposition” from rabbis, Seewald, himself a survivor of sexual abuse, said he can “almost guarantee” that every rabbi knows of at least one case of abuse. Sexual abuse “is our dark little secret. It’s only a matter of time before it explodes in our face.”
Statistics show that between one in three and one in five girls, and one in five and one in six boys are victimized by sexual abuse, Seewald noted, and the most common form is incest.
JCW now has 12 full-time employees and spends up to $40,000 a month defraying the cost of therapy for victims.
“We have a huge problem,” he said. “A day does not go by that I am not personally contacted by a victim.”
But, “we will find you and you will be exposed,” he pledged to abusers, “and that goes for those covering up the abuse.”
To applause and cheers, he said the previous administration at Toronto’s Eitz Chaim Schools, where Schacter once taught, should be held accountable for his actions.