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Opinion: Getting a Grip on Religious Child Molestation

Last week, British Channel 4’s Dispatches program did an expose on attitudes within some of the Orthodox Jewish community in London toward molestation. One particular victim went undercover to expose the way his community has for decades been dealing with pedophilia. It’s been a year long investigation and it has sent shockwaves through much of the Anglo-Jewish community.

Unfortunately this is one of many stories emerging of late. There was the high profile trial and conviction of an Orthodox Jewish “therapist” in Williamsburg, N.Y., and a lot of media attention focused on a spiritual leader in Golders Green, London.

Often the community rallies around alleged offenders and ostracize the would-be victim. Edward Thorndike, president of the American Psychological Association in the early 20th century, coined a term called “the halo effect.” The theory goes that we tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt based on personal image and stature. When we hear about a common man having committed an offense we immediately presume him to be guilty while feeling sorry for the victim. But when it’s someone of stature in the community, we immediately presume that person’s innocence while vilifying those who bring the accusations. As Thorndike put it, we make “a generalization from the perception of one outstanding personality trait to an overly favorably evaluation of the whole personality.”

Isn’t that why Jimmy Saville got away with what he did for so long? I’ve spoken to several people involved in the music industry during the Saville era that now claim with hindsight that “Jimmy Saville was obviously up to no good.” Only at the time they didn’t see it. Like them, the hundreds who have clamored to the support of a rabbi in London, the thousands who have done the same for one of their own in New York and the many more who immediately ostracize those bringing claims of abuse, all suffer from the halo effect. After all who are you more likely to believe: a “skimpy clad, rebellious” teenage girl or a long frock coated, black-bearded therapist; a leading rabbi or a “desperate” divorcee; a “troubled” student or a popular star-studded teacher?

Many communities insist that their own hierarchical bodies should deal with accusations internally rather than them being reported to the police. Indeed in response to the Dispatches program, the Ultra-Orthodox community in London scrambled to release a statement condemning all forms of molestation, but at the same time insisting that all matters should be reported to a specially convened committee in the first instance. This is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, would they also insist that a murder should be reported to them for consideration? To treat molestation any different is to undermine the enormity of the crime and the gravity of the damage caused to victims.

Therein lays one of the fundamental problems. Too many people misunderstand or undermine the enormity of the psychological impact of molestation. One young man from Manchester recalled how he was repeatedly molested as a child, only his parents decided not to report it because they knew the guilty party and it would have ruined his family. In other words they were more concerned about the effect an arrest and conviction would have on the family of the abuser than they were with the welfare of their own son. I wonder if they were even aware of the well documented effects on victims of child molestation: guilt, inferiority complexes, depression and a high rate of attempted suicide. Perhaps, they thought, their son wasn’t “damaged” after all he was portraying a happy-go-lucky demeanor throughout adolescence. So did Motty Borger, but it all came back to haunt him two days into his honeymoon when he confided about his abuse to his new bride then later jumped from the seventh-floor balcony of their hotel room.

Another reason why dealing with matters internally is utterly flawed is because of the all too often overlooked fact that most pedophiles are repeat offenders. What these people fail to grasp is that molestation stems from mental instability. Preying on the young or the vulnerable who can’t or don’t know how to defend themselves, suggests a toxic mix of narcissism, addiction and passive aggression. There’s a reason why those convicted have to register on a sex-offenders list. It’s because they always run the risk of repeating the offense. Internal committees can at best reprimand the perpetrator such that he might feel truly chastised and guilty, but he’ll also most likely go on to repeat the offense.

I think one of the main reasons there is reluctance to report such hideous crimes is because of a certain psychology embedded in the Jewish mindset associated with reporting to authorities. The oft touted biblical prohibition of mesirah (lit. handing over to authorities) was based on the premise that government authorities would typically deal harshly with Jews, persecuting them, incarcerating them or worse and often without trial. The well documented stories of the Poretz in the Soviet shtetl or the Kapos in Nazi Germany are ingrained in the psyche of the Jew. However, a modern day police system in a democratic society operates entirely different.

Well, not entirely. The end result still appears to be much the same. While one might face a fair trial, it’s difficult to suggest that one gets a fair punishment. Judaism frowns on the general notion of a prison system. The idea of remaining locked up like an animal in a cage for so many years is deemed inhumane and self-defeating. And while it can be rightly argued that one has to adhere to the law of the land and thus to know in advance that doing the crime means you’ll be doing the time — nonetheless, the prison system is hardly serving the purpose it was surely intended for.

Prisons are punishment for crimes committed. They also help keep society protected from repeat offenders — the one aspect of incarceration which Judaism does sanction, thus could arguably be applied to many molesters. But prisons should also be expected to help rehabilitate, though they usually have the very opposite effect. Prisons are mostly violent places. The National Geographic channel made a television series entitled “Hard Time.” On their website they advertise the show with the caption, “in prison, every day is a fight for survival.” As one inmate put it, “There are only two types of people in here, predators and prey.” molesters are known to be the most vulnerable prey.

Perhaps the fear of reporting is directly correlated to the perceived end result. You might get a fairer trial but you’ll end up in the same place as the Jew who endured untold suffering in some Soviet or German hellhole. Until such point as “don’t drop the soap in the shower” is no longer a joke and proper rehabilitation becomes part of the process, nothing will change in the way of thinking of those who refuse to report, and mesirah will continue to get bantered about.

To be sure, this is analyzing, not justifying. It is reassuring that in the main the Jewish world is waking up to the reality of child molestation and that rabbinic bodies are issuing a “must report” edict. But for those lagging behind, something must be done to redress the balance such that potential molesters will think twice before acting, and in the event that they do, others will feel right about reporting them.

When the Church abuse scandals were first exposed at the early part of this century it emerged that such abuse was endemic even as the Holy See might have been painfully slow to deal with what was going on right under their altars. It is becoming increasingly apparent that certain rabbinic figureheads or bodies have also become adept at turning a blind eye to abuse or simply undermining it. A message must go out to all segments of society including every religious community that molestation is a severe crime. The consequences to victims are real. The response must be robust. Not to deal with it forthright is to share in the guilt. Only then can we start to heal.


  • 1. Sylvia wrote:

    In many insular religious groups such as the Amish, polygamous Mormons, Catholics, etc, where religious authorities go unquestioned, there is rampant child molestation. Religions worldwide who force pre-teen girls into early marriages are considered guilty of this as well. There is no lack of child molestation among totally non-religious people as well. It stands to reason then, that older rabbonim, who have little understanding of psychology, or consider psychology to be the antithesis of Judaism, see child molestation as a normal consequence of religious life, and as a predictable hazard of childhood, rather than a serious, life-altering crime. These rabbonim may see the activity as wrong, but harmless.
    There is also the worry that someone will report molestation that has not really occurred. It is often hard to find proof or witnesses. It is basically up to the victim to provide a credible story to the police, judge, or jury.
    Many in the frum community fear the effect that the publicity will have on the community.

  • 3. Fred wrote:

    It is simply not true that the issur of mesirah is “based on the premise that government authorities would typically deal harshly with Jews”. It has nothing at all to do with that, and Schochet should know that. If he really believes what he wrote then he is a shocking amhoretz, and if he doesn’t believe it then he’s a liar. A mosser is the most disgusting thing a Jew can be, and it makes no difference whether it’s in Germany or Russia or America. Even one who only hands over someone’s *money* to a nochri is a mosser; he’s not going to be imprisoned, he’s not going to be tortured, all that will happen is that his money will be stolen, and yet the informer has no portion in the next world. How much more so when he is handing over his victim’s body, no matter how gently it will be treated. This is fundamental halocho, and it’s just as much in force today as it ever was. No law can override it, and no fake “psak din” from political “rabbis” can change it.

    • 4. Halochoh wrote:

      and Schochet should know that. If he really believes what he wrote then he is a shocking amhoretz, and if he doesn’t believe it then he’s a liar. YOU R RIGHT

  • 5. Anony-mouse wrote:

    What about the father of the 13 year old Chassidishe girl who violated his own child in the UK? I just heard this one over Shabbos. It’s more horrific than we can imagine. I’m wonder who reported this monster to the police, it was probably the hospital. Mom probably kept quiet.

  • 6. Pinchos Woolstone wrote:

    Padwa and his like are low lives, irrespective of which community they come from.
    They facilitate evil by not confronting it

  • 7. wrong wrote:

    we all kjnow full well that the police, even if they were well meaning, have no idea what their doing. they stomp around like a bull in a china shop. hurting, damaging, and take no responsibility. they just dont understand us.
    of course we have faults in our system. but it is immeasurably better than the secular one.
    in our system, a little girl, angry at her teacher, does not have the power to ruin her teachers and families life, on her word alone. the secular outlook is different. thats why so few want to be teachers. its a risky dangerous job, where you are guilty till proven innocent, and even thereafter.

  • 8. i feel... wrote:

    i feel that this lady is sort of making fun of the orthodox community in a way! not such a nice video!

    • 9. She is not doing any such thing wrote:

      Please explain how you see that she is “making fun” of the Orthodox community.

      It is a serious matter that must be dealt with and she, as a journalist, feels an obligation to expose those who try to protect offenders. She doesn’t seem to be acting disrespectful.

      The only part of this video that isn’t so nice it the part where the Rabbi says not to got to the police. It isn’t acceptable and quite frightening, especially if the man under question is a repeated offended and out on the loose where he is able to continue his monstrous behavior and harm children and damage them for life.

  • 10. Brain wrote:

    I’m not sure whats worse, the Rabbi’s opinion, or the disgusting entrapment tactics employed by this “honest” person and news channel.

    You think Rabbi’s will take this issue seriously when real honest people come to them now that they know they might be secretly taped? This news channel is sick – they could care less about getting people help than exposing wayward opinions of people who actually are able to help. This does nothing to solve this problem in our community.

  • 11. FRED REALITY CHECK wrote:

    So I contacted Rabbi Schochet via twitter @rabbiyys to ask him your question i.e. are you ignorant or a liar. He sent me back an email with the following for your information:

    A mosser is dino ke’akum with respect to writing a sefer Torah (Yoreh Deah 281:3) and with respect to shechitah (Remah ibid 2:9). See also Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 3:11.

    If, however, one is guilty of a crime, and according to dina demalchusa deserves a prison sentence even though according to halacha his punishment wouldn’t be the same this is not mesirah (see Ritva, Bava Metsia 83b; Dvar Avraham vol. I pg. 8). One would still not be allowed to hand this individual over to the civil authorities because this is the equivalent of returning aveidas akum, which is usually not allowed. In an instance of avoiding a chilul Hashem, just like we would be obligated to return the aveidas akum, so too we would be obligated to hand over this individual (see Rama, Choshen Mishpat 388:12).

    See also Oruch Hashulchan (Choishen Mishpat 288:7) for an interesting distinction between courts today and those of yesteryear.

    Moreover, if authorities know that one Jew is concealing information about another Jew in order to save him from punishment, then Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 28:3) considers this a situation of chilul Hashem. See also Be’er Hagola, Choshen Mishpat 388:12 on further exceptions to the rule.

    However, if one is guilty of a crime and deserves a punishment according to dina demalchusa but because of anti-semetic attitudes he will probably suffer more ; or, the prison conditions are such that he will suffer at the hands of the other inmates in a manner that is not proscribed by law, then turning the offender in would constitute mesirah, since his added suffering will be shelo kadin – thus my deeper analysis.

    Even so, mesirah is permitted in situations where one is a public menace (see Shach to Choshen Mishpat 388, 59), hence my reference to sex offenders being repeat offenders, and more particularly, if one is physically or psychologically harming another individual (for example, in instances of sexual abuse (see Shach to Choshen Mishpat ibid, 45).

    I therefore make the point that the Jewish community does not have the ability to investigate cases where there are raglayim ladavar and a real problem such that the proper government agencies should be contacted to investigate.

    Message from me to you Fred: Looks like the man is more learned than you give him credit for – and maybe your the am ha’aretz – or a liar.

  • 13. What does TORAH say? wrote:

    Now don’t get me wrong. I and members of my family have been victims of abuse, including molestation, so I can relate quite well to the ugly emotions suffered.
    But I feel compelled to kind of play “devil’s advocate” here, like I did on another blog forum, because it looks like we need an explanation.

    “Terrible! He (Weberman) raped an unmarried minor, so we jump on the bandwagon and say “let him rot!” Maybe he deserves it, according to the law of the land.
    But, correct me if I’m missing something. Doesn’t the Torah require the rapist to just pay a fine and even marry her? So, when the law of the land and the Torah contradict, which one do we go by?
    Case in point. Let’s say we live in an Arab country, where the penalty for theft is be-handing. Are we going to insist that our brother thief lose his hand or go according to the Torah? ”

    So, the first responder called me an idiot and an Am HaAretz, to which I replied , stop the name-calling and look at this website:

    Taken literally, it seems that the Torah is kind of lenient on this – just pay a fine and even marry her?!
    So, can someone with more in depth knowledge elaborate on this? How would an autonomous Beis Din punish the perpetrator?
    Could this be why some Rabbanan have a different take on this than the secular world? Not that they don’t care about the well-being of children. But on the other hand, maybe they think that the American penalty is too harsh, so they don’t want that either.

  • 14. Torah was progressive in its time wrote:

    3,300 years ago, women had no rights. If they were raped, so be it. If they were taken for marriages they did not want, so be it. If their husbands wanted their children for sacrifices to the gods, so be it.
    Judaism came and declared that a girl who was raped had to receive money and/or become her rapist’s wife. That in itself was much more progressive – for here she would be a halachic wife and benefit from the monetary benefits of being supported by her husband – housed, fed, clothed and treated with respect with regards to her body needs etc.
    While today this may seem totally immoral and unfair, in its times, the Torah’s laws were incredibly beneficial for women.

  • 15. If so... wrote:

    To # 14:

    If that’s the case, then how would that apply to Weberman? Sounds like what he did was not so terrible. Just give her $500,000, and, on top of that, she can be an additional wife! A WIN WIN!
    Just move to a place like Morroco where having more than one is legal. Can an Ashkenazi get a heter to become a Sfardi?
    So, the big question is, and now even Dov Hikind, of all people are wondering, 103 years? So who is the worst of the two wrongs, Weberman or…?


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