The Victim

       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.

12 responses to “The Victim

  1. K’vod HaRav,

    I write with the utmost respect for the Rav.
    I fully endorse the Rav’s call to prosecute, via the Police, in real time.
    I wish to share the following points:
    1. I personally, having been one of the victims of the principal’s attentions, strongly objected to the term “alleged” in both President Joel’s letter of apology and the Rav’s article. The term may be semantically correct – as far as President Joel and the Rav knew at the time they penned their respective articles – but as the Rav now knows, it is untrue. Legally – maybe; in reality, no. Others, like myself, have communicated their experiences. I sent mine privately to President Joel, who acknowledged it with gravity and understanding I applaud. I did not wish to share the information in public, so I did not post it to the Rav nor email it privately. I mention it now as part of the explanation as to why the Rav’s well meaning article, by using the term “alleged”, invoked a strong reaction.
    2. G-d knows what G-d is doing. I have a cousin who lives in Florida whose boys went to the second school where the principal worked. There too he charmed and befriended children, among them my cousin’s children – especially the one who shares my name, the name of our Grandfather…. Are you nauseous yet? The first time he saw me in their Shul he did a double-take and turned white. This was shortly after he had moved down to Florida. I was ‘dan l’chaf zechut’ that he had done Teshuvah. Nevertheless, imagine my horror when my cousin told me she was going to send this 11 year old to the principal’s apartment for Shabbat when he was visiting Israel two summers ago! My cousin felt it would be good for them to visit and have a respected Rabbi who they knew and who was so sweet and loved her boys so much, this one especially. MY MISTAKE COME BACK TO HAUNT ME!!! By not reporting him, I had allowed this to occur. Too late have I come to understand that it meant other victims would follow and suffer perhaps worse than the behavior to which I’d been subjected. Rav – my cousin wouldn’t BELIEVE ME! I had to speak *at length!* with her and her husband until finally they understood the danger. The point of publishing these articles is not just to deter other potential offenders. It is to try to prevent THE SAME offender from being able to repeat the offense on an unsuspecting young person. It is not foolproof, but it will cover most bases. When the statute of limitations has run out and when, as the Rav wrote: we live in a world where Justice is not always meted out, the Press – however heinous a medium – is perhaps the best way to get the word out.
    3. The following will not be accepted by many people: There is another aspect to what has happened. The principal has now experienced the equivalent of death in this world. This cleanses his neshamah to a very great extent and saves him from a worse fate in Gehenom.

    All this being said, my fellow MTA graduates and the numerous reports back up one accusation. The single accusation against the other party may be exactly the injustice the Rav decried. If this is so, it is a terrible crime and again, supports the Rav’s advice to report incidents in real time.

  2. Until something is proven, it remains “alleged.”

  3. And there is the crux of the problem.

    My best suggestion is for parents to equip their children with phones that record or pocket digital recorders. Our verbal testimonies do not seem to serve as proof.

  4. Not a bad idea. After all, we believe that there is an Eye that sees all and an Ear that hears all.

  5. All of this is excellent, but I am hoping for an article that condemns nivul peh; there are Orthodox Jews who struggle with this problem.

  6. Not a perfect analogy, but the responses remind me a bit of the reaction of many ardent religious Zionists to the possibility of not saying hallel with a bracha on Yom Haatzmaut due to potential halachic problems. They are so committed to the noble ideal of Zionism that they will not tolerate anything less than ‘all the way’ and refuse to acknowledge the need for moderation in light of other important concerns. Somewhat similarly, the astonishing wave of revelations of abuse over the last several years have awakened us all to the urgent need to address this problem and rein in on abusers. People are so committed to this – and of course we all should be – that they instinctively come out in fervent support of accusers and refuse to accept the possibility that in some instances and situations public accusations might be imprudent.

    To be honest I am not sure I agree with your conclusion, but I do admire your call for a level-headed, proportioned approach even as we recognize the urgent need to address this terrible problem.

  7. Number one – do you, Mr Cohen, think that this is the right place to bring that in?? As if the two are possibly equated?

    Number two – let us posit there ARE kids who are fully aware they are holding the nuclear option in their hands, and threaten to use it. I have heard it. No matter what you say or do, there is that perhaps infinite chance that the person coming forward is seeking revenge, and the accused IS in fact innocent.

  8. I don’t understand a word you’re writing, or perhaps you don’t understand a word I’m writing. I never said, implied, or hinted that victims do not deserve community support unless they come forward. They always deserve community support. The problem is that until they come forward and prosecute their claims remain speculation, as credible and sincere as they are. Please re-read what I wrote.

  9. That this “happened” at YU, not an enclave in Brooklyn, makes this harder to understand. I was at YU in the mid80s for one year — YU was a very modern environment, and representative of the full spectrum of Jewish, not only religious life. In fact, the period at issue was a time of YU as big tent Judaism. So the lack of an outcry back then is reason to hear carefully the Rabbi’s points. I too was angered upon hearing what happened, but the course of prudence suggested on this site, is worth considering.

    • The abuse didn’t happen at YU, the university, it happened at MTA, the high school. Spending a year at YU, you wouldn’t have heard about it. Spending 4 years at MTA you probably would have.

  10. I think the Rav’s articles were very multifaceted although aimed at two points: 1. the Press is less than the ideal place to air these things 2. (Somehow) these instances must be reported to the police.

    With regard to the first point, to the Press’ credit, in cases where Justice fails, the Press can and does succeed. It can also fail fantastically, as it may have in this instance for one of the two individuals the Forward mentioned. I KNOW, firsthand, that it did not for the first. But at this point, I just join a dozen or more who have submitted their allegations in addition to the testimonies printed in the article.

    With regard to the second point, I say ‘Somehow’ and suggested a pocket digital recorder, because aside from numerous individuals willing now to stand up and bear witness, there is often no proof. Cameras can be defeated, recordings lost or erased and they can’t be everywhere, e.g. restrooms. Another suggestion is that every school make it a practice that no teacher or administrator is to be alone with a student – and if they are, then they should be informed that they are running a risk and that their testimony will be considered inferior to a child’s, should the child makes an accusation. It is a simple extension of the laws of Yichud. Some smart schools already prohibit teachers from being Friends with students on Facebook for example.

    As an aside, I am happy to say that comments in this forum are a cut above. I learn a lot from them. At the same time, it might be incorrect to speak/write to a Rav in certain ways. There is a reason there are so few Rabbis willing to stick their necks out like Rabbi Pruzansky. He is a precious resource for this very reason: the Rav does not flinch and does not bow to political correctness. The expression: every strength is a weakness seems to apply. Unfortunately for our generation, we do not support our Rabbis. The result has been that the majority have receded from the public eye and many do not weigh in on issues publicly. Those who do often incur great personal risk. Personal constructive criticism can always be sent in a private email vs. a public lashing.

    I would ask that comments be made without getting personal.
    On a related note, I fear the new approach to same-sex marriages being legalized in America will potentially make this issue worse.

    One of the keys that protected me when I was approached was the knowledge that the Torah called the behavior “Toe-ayvah”. I knew it was wrong. In some societies it is not as strongly condemned.

    With the advent of same sex marriages being championed nowadays, embraced publicly by some very vocal non-Orthodox Jews – and even as recently noted in this blog by some “Orthodox” Rabbis whose resolve is crumbling – secular society is becoming a very dangerous place to raise a Torah observant child. Never mind the radio songs, television shows and movies. That’s a fait accompli.

    At an established, prestigious NYC Bank we had to attend Diversity Training seminars. The instructor, based on what they were taught, tried to instruct us all to believe homosexuality as one of the things that had to be accepted and tolerated. I publicly objected to the instructor and the Bank instructing that I accept it. Tolerating/accepting diversity OK, that it is accepted behavior however went against the beliefs of my religion and they had no right to tell me to do so. (Since at the same seminar they were teaching that we had to respect each others different religious beliefs the poor instructor didn’t know quite how to respond and said, “Well, let’s just move on.” and continued the canned presentation.) I am not naive nor homophopic. I am not a gay basher, but do not tell me it is correct behavior for a Torah observant Jew.

    My fear is the following is now possible: if a child’s parents, friend’s parents or even their Rabbi is gay and their teacher of the same sex makes a move on them – there is less internal, mental support; they might even be flattered or curious. I know the problem is approaching a minor. I’m talking about from the minor’s perspective: now the minor may not feel or recognize it as abuse or sick behavior, because homosexuality is now being espoused as a valid mode and that is what they are taught.

  11. ivan Hartstein

    The main point of all is being missed. I DID tell my mother and stepfather …others went to Lamm, Miller, Hirt and others and were rebuffed or ignored. To me, the stonewalling is almost as important