Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Maybe Talk Isn't So Cheap

I recently posted a blog entry about something having to do with sexual abuse (Other than my Touched By a Rabbi post). It related a conversation I had with someone about it, and what might be done about it. I made efforts to keep things anonymous and not to let identifiable information slip, but evidently I didn't go nearly far enough in that. Upon request, I pulled the post, first temporarily; now permanently. It seems that, in my efforts to describe my struggle to decide what to do in a particular situation, I may have hurt people, and jeopardized the entire thing. I hope I didn't.

To be honest, I didn't think there were more than 5 or 6 people who actually read my blog. (My suspicion is that, other than the previous two posts, there aren't.) And I guess I failed to really understand the reach of these things. After a long conversation with someone I respect (more now, even, than before,) I think I understand it better.

Writing helps me sort out how I feel about things. It's cathartic, somehow, to set down my thoughts, sift through them, and try to really get to the crux of it all. But they say that Abraham Lincoln used to write letters to all sorts of people, that he would then put in his desk and never send. I guess that was one post I should have never let out either.

In any case, I'm sorry, and am pretty much done blogging on this topic. I do hope you'll continue reading, though. It's nice to think someone actually reads this.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Touched by a Rabbi

In it's February 23rd issue, Phil Jacobs, of the Baltimore Jewish Times, led with a cover story called "Today, Steve is 25." (I'd link to it, but the article seems to be no-longer-available on the JT website.) The article was important because it began to open a dialog in our community that has been long repressed: Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community. This article generated a lot of response, both the to BJT and to Phil, personally. (See Phil's blog - As of this post, pay particular attention to the articles: "Way Too Much Fear," "It's About the Victims," and "Is This Orthodox Bashing?")

Two weeks later, the article was followed up by a short piece describing Phil's visit to a local weekly kiddush, where many of the participants are men (age ranges from 20's to 40's) who were abused by teachers and others in their youth. (Again, I would link to it if I could find it.) These guys talk about the subject most weeks, both reliving past events, and discussing things that are going on currently. I know this because I periodically go to the kiddush as most of these guys are my friends. The title of this post, in fact, is something one of them came up with.

Sexual abuse, particularly by an authority figure, is a terrible thing. It's insidious. It messes with people's lives in ways they can't even explain. It effects their marriages, their relationships with their children, their self-esteem, their careers. In some cases, it leads to further abuse, as the abused become abusers themselves. For some victims, there can be tremendous guilt as though they might be partially to blame. This is especially so in cases where a boy was abused and his own arousal was required for the abuse to take place.

It's horrible, and I will never say anything to defend the perpetrators of these crimes.

But I have a few questions:

  1. The problem, historically, has been one of power. The authority figure held power over the victim. His word was more likely to be believed than that of the victim. Sometimes the power came from powerful families whose names were seen as better not besmirched.

    The problem today is that the power is shifting to the other extreme: to the victims. One has only to say that there has been an abuse, and the "abuser" can be destroyed, even without proof. "Where there's smoke, there's fire," is the attitude, and while that may protect some people from a real danger, it may also destroy a career and/or a family, even if the person is innocent. As Ray Donovan put it, "Where do I go to get my reputation back?"

    A byproduct of this is that good-quality teachers and leaders are sometimes choosing to stay away from these fields that could potentially cost them so much with so little effort. I know personally of one situation in which an excellent educator, with many years of experience, is being pressured by his family to leave teaching because of their fear of this. It will be a terrible loss if he does.

    So how do we structure this to both protect our children (and even young adults) from sexual predators disguised as teachers and community leaders, while also protecting good teachers and community leaders from unfair accusations?

  2. How should the community react towards a person who has been accused, or even convicted? Should we ostracise them? Place them in cherem? Should we refuse to do business with them, have them in our shuls or even to acknowledge them on the street?

    How about their families? Should we hold them accountable? What about parents who know that their son is a predator, and try to protect him instead of turning him over to the police?

    Similarly, what about school administrators who knowingly get rid of a problem teacher by sending him elsewhere (which has happened many times)? Should they be punished too? How?

  3. Finally, for whatever we do decide is the appropriate community action, for how long? I mean, a teacher who abuses students should never be allowed to teach kids again, as far as I'm concerned. The recidivism rate is too high. The Torah tells us "Don't put a stumbling block before a blind man." Putting a predator back in with the prey would just be asking for trouble. But if, for example, ostracism is part of the community reaction, should he be ostracised forever? And again, how about those that enabled him to continue?

These are serious issues that need to be considered and addressed by our community leaders. And the guidelines need to start coming soon.

Yesterday, I sat and talked with one of my friends, who was abused, about this. See, I know someone who is a predator. So I asked my friend, "How do I react towards him, when I see him? When he comes over to me and wishes me a 'gut Shabbos' and asks after my family, what do I do?" My friend said, "It's always harder when there's an actual person associated with the name." He's right on that. But it still doesn't help me.

Today was the last day of Pesach, and rabbis across Baltimore spoke publicly about this problem, and some of the things the community is working on to deal with it. We're expecting materials to be coming in the mail, discussing the issue. This coming weekend, we're also expecting another major article on the topic in the BJT. I'll keep you posted.