In an article published in The Forward on May 2nd, Barbara Finkelstein painted a very optimistic picture of the shifting landscape in the Charedi world concerning child sexual abuse policies. In that article, she claimed that “Virtually no mainstream religious Jewish organization or sect publicly insists anymore that victims speak to their rabbi before going to the police.” As proof she cited the grassroots efforts of rabbis from Chabad, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Yeshiva University, and the Rabbinical Council of America.
While it is true that progress has been made over the past 5 years in
regards to sexual abuse awareness and prevention, this doesn’t tell the
whole story. Of course, Finklestein might argue that it depends on how
you define ‘mainstream religious Jewish organizations.
Arguably, Agudath Israel of America is a mainstream religious Jewish
organization. It’s constituent organizations and demographic include
large swaths of the Charedi, Litvish, and Yeshivish populations in North
America. The official policy of Agudah, as of writing this, is still
that a rabbi must be consulted before any abuse allegation can be
brought to the authorities.
Presumably, the hundreds of different sects of Chassidim living in
New York qualify as mainstream Jewish organizations, and yet there has
been no public change in policy from any of them toward advocating
reporting abuse directly to the authorities.
While it is admirable that some Charedi sects, particularly those
under Agudah’s umbrella are pouring resources into prevention and
training, the fact remains that they do not advocate going immediately
to the authorities in cases of sexual abuse. In fact, it could be argued
that their overemphasis on prevention, while certainly beneficial, is
designed to shield them from public scrutiny and criticism, especially
since a majority of their preventative curricula and protocols are
focused on preventing abuse in institutions, while a majority of abuse
happens outside of institutions, and is perpetrated, in a majority of
cases, by someone the victim knows.
While Agudah’s preventative measures may reduce, and hopefully
eliminate abuse in institutions, their policies still do nothing to
prevent abuse by family members, family acquaintances, tutors, or other
people known to the victim outside of institutional settings, and, in
fact, enable these other forms of abuse, because while the preventative
curricula do, in fact, cover potential intrafamilial abuse, the
psychological dynamics inherent in intrafamilial abuse are such that
even the most well educated child is susceptible.
Home settings cannot be controlled the same way institutional
settings are. You can’t have cameras in every room. You can’t have glass
in every door. You can’t always have a buddy system. You certainly
can’t implement policies which mandate that a student and teacher are
never alone and unobservable. Abuse will happen in the home, and other
non-institutional settings. Siblings will abuse their siblings. Parents
will abuse their children. Trusted family acquaintances will abuse
children they know.
Rabbinical authorities will abuse the children of
adults who trust them. Abuse happens everywhere, and the only tool we
have to fight it, other than preventative education, is the ability to
report it once it happens.
By implying that the problem is next to solved, Finklestein does a
dangerous disservice to victims by providing a shield behind which
institutions can hide when faced with claims of apathy and obstruction
concerning child sexual abuse. If there’s one way to ensure that the
fantasy espoused in her article never comes true, it is by issuing
unearned participation trophies to organizations that hide behind the
illusion of change to perpetuate harmful policies.