There was a typically strong reaction to the sensitive issues addressed in the last post – on dealing with scandal – especially from a number of past victims who called or wrote that I had not been sympathetic enough to their circumstances and the reasons for their reluctance to come forward when their cases were ripe. Indeed, I noted that “there are often cogent and plausible reasons why victims do not come forward, usually to avoid stigma, publicity, or other personal issues. To me, it is the most vexing aspect of these squalid stories.” There are, in fact, many reasons why many (most?) victims do not prosecute. The most understandable reason – alluded to above – is when the victims are children and do not even tell their parents, or their parents persuade them to tell no one else. Some victims are so young when they are assaulted that they suppress memories that are only triggered later in life. Sometimes, the predators themselves are family members or otherwise powerful people which make reporting most unpleasant.
Some victims were too young, or too disconnected, to even think of going to the police, and as I noted to some, had they gone, for example, to the NYC police in the late 1970s, they likely would have received a nightstick against the head and sent back to school, home, youth group, etc. It is true that society 30-40 years ago was not as sensitive to these issues as we are today. And yet, as noted as well, the wall of silence exists among victims in our time as much as it did in the past. Thus, I stated in reference to local matters I have personally dealt with in which victims did not want to cooperate with the police and prosecution, “Will those same victims come forward anonymously in 2040 and castigate their abuser? I would hope not, despite my revulsion toward the accused. NOW is the time.” Nothing said, heard or written has dissuaded me from that viewpoint.
Some felt distressed at my effusive praise of the young Satmar woman who did successfully prosecute her abuser, as if praise of one person necessarily implies criticism of others. It re-awakened in victims feelings of guilt and sorrow (all unintentional, of course) because they had chosen silence instead of prosecution, or, if not “chosen” silence, at least had not had any better options. But surely one can laud the achievements of one person without others feeling disparaged. That is a general rule of life.
Some readers were literary deconstructionists, imputing to my words meanings that were heavily influenced by their own experiences and not by anything that I myself had written (I’m excluding from this characterization the hopeless rabbi-haters) and thereby missing the essence of my post: I come not to blame the victims of the past but rather to empower the victims of the present and future.
To me, that is the whole point, and in some sense, at least a partial motivation of those who are now prosecuting through the media. But therein lies the point of departure between my opinion and their current practices. One can have the utmost sympathy for victims and still disapprove of the manner in which they are seeking justice. Perhaps some background will help.
Obviously, as a Rabbi and former attorney, I have been involved with numerous crime victims. Having practiced in both criminal and family courts, I am quite mindful of the hesitation that many victims have in coming forward, as well as the emotional constraints under which they operate. I understand – even empathize – with their dilemmas and it is not my place to determine whether they made the right decision in the past, whatever it was. But the victim’s perspective is unique to the victim, as follows.
Like most people who have lived their lives in the New York metropolitan area, I have been a crime victim about a half-dozen times. Each time, I confess, my reaction was the same: I did not want the perpetrators incarcerated; I wanted them dead. Dead! It didn’t matter to me whether there was an arrest, a trial, or a right to counsel and defense. It didn’t even matter to me that the crimes committed against me were not capital crimes. To me, there was only one acceptable outcome: death for the criminal, and preferably a slow and painful one. Unfortunately, no perps were ever arrested in any of my cases. But that is the perspective of the victim, at least this one.
And none of my cases involved the violation of my person, nor amounted even remotely to the severity of the crimes alleged by children who were abused. Yet, my reaction was always the same, and lingered for some time, and then faded, until the next crime, which fortunately were staggered through the years. In fact, I have never met a complainant (the legal term for a crime victim who prosecutes) who felt that their story should be questioned or that their credibility should be subject to impeachment. Most wanted to go straight from the arrest phase to the sentencing phase, because their story was so vivid and so compelling – to them. That is the perspective of the victim.
But I wrote in this space not from the perspective of the victim, but as a rabbi and attorney – as a rabbi concerned with Torah law and the parameters of lashon hara (disparaging talk about others) and as an attorney concerned about justice and fair play, and the rights even of the accused. It is immensely understandable why victims should not have the mindset and emotional makeup to view these events more dispassionately; again, when I was victimized, I felt the same way. But there is a broader societal interest in resolving these matters in a just and honorable way, in gaining justice through justice, and not through mob action, which is essentially prosecution through media in which the accused cannot mount a defense. There is certainly a broad societal interest in seeing predators in prison and children protected from any harm.
Some have suggested a “to’elet” (a benefit that would justify disparaging another publicly) in that every predator should know that there might be a day of reckoning even after the Statute of Limitations has run – that the glare of publicity in the distant future could lead to his global humiliation and restrain him from repugnant conduct in the present. I am not sure that such is really a deterrent to the sick people who prey on children, but there is a counterargument as well that does not portend well for the victim. It is the downside of prosecution through media.
Imagine for a moment that an accused who can no longer defend himself in a court of law responds publicly, through the media, as follows: “Sure, I remember these kids. I was their teacher/principal/coach/youth leader/rabbi/minister/ Boy Scout master, etc. These were troubled children with emotional problems. They were socially awkward and friendless. I had to show them extra love and attention. Many came from broken homes. Some came on to me, and the proper response would have been to expel them from the school/team/youth group, etc., but I took pity on them because of their emotional state. And that is why the school/synagogue/church/team/troop did not fire me. At the end of the day, it was my word against the word of a troubled, possibly mentally ill, youth. That they so grossly mistook displays of affection, and the fact that I am now subject to these false and vicious accusations 30-40 years later, only shows how disturbed they were, and are. Where do I go to get my reputation back?”
Let’s posit that all the above is completely untrue. But if I was such a victim and forced to read that, the old wounds would reopen, and the old pain would return. I would feel violated again. All I could do would be to restate my accusations and then have the accused restate his responses. By way of analogy, I have personally seen the searing pain of rape victims who sat in court listening to their vicious rapist claim that their relations were consensual, and followed dinner and a movie, and the charges were outrageously false. The psychological pain must be unbearable. But at least that took place in a courtroom where some finality of judgment loomed. In the media? There is no finality, only mud and more mud.
Others have suggested that media exposure forces organizations to investigate themselves and to change their culture of silence and cover-up. I disagree, and sadly declare that no organization – religious, secular, political or corporate – ever investigates itself unless there is pressure from an outside party, and the outside party is almost always the government, i.e., the police and prosecution. Arrests and lawsuits get the attention of organizations far more than sensational articles that can be denied, stonewalled, and no-commented to oblivion, whatever sugary statements are issued.
That is why I reiterate the imperative – the moral obligation – of abuse victims to prosecute in real time. Again, this is not meant as a criticism of past victims but as encouragement to present and future victims – a moral obligation that helps them heal and assuredly helps to protect potential, future victims as well.
So if prosecution by media is morally wrong, and the Statute of Limitations has run, then to where can victims go to get justice? The brutal answer – which will bring no real comfort –is: there is not always justice in this world. I did not receive any justice when I was victimized. More seriously, six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices did not receive any justice in this world, and Naava Applebaum and her father David (hy”d), murdered by Arab terrorists the night before her wedding, did not receive any justice in this world. The thousands of Israelis murdered or maimed by Arab terrorists did not receive any justice in this world, and worse, many have lived to see their tormenters freed, walking the streets, living happily with their families and plotting new outrages against the Jewish people.
Justice is not always obtained in this world. That is why there is another world – the World-to-Come – in which justice is absolute, in which all victims are elevated and in which all victimizers are excoriated for eternity. In this world, victims can certainly confront their accusers, and certainly seek therapy and counseling to deal with their victimization. But injustice cannot be rectified through another injustice, and the mere fact that people are accused of crimes for which they can no longer defend themselves adequately strikes me as unjust. It’s the price paid for silence. All victims, for whom my heart cries, have suffered enough. They should be blessed with strength and courage, fortitude and all good things in life, which itself are measures of vindication.
But we are left with my conclusion from last time, and I write again generally and without reference to any specific instance: “Fairness and justice demand that the accusers have our sympathy and the accused have the presumption of innocence.” That is the inherent weakness of prosecution through media and the inherent strength of prosecution through the appropriate authorities.
And I beg victims to come forward, so this scourge can be eliminated from Jewish life and from our world.