The Scourge of Sexual Abuse

(First published on

     The famed American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Such intelligence would be helpful today but is unfortunately lacking.

     The Chaim Walder case has riveted much of Israel and the rabbinic world, yet another example of a Haredi individual who allegedly used a position of trust and influence to prey on children and women, and for years. The stories of abuse are horrific, and the inability of the legal or rabbinic world to deal with the criminal effectively is typical of the global problem in these matters. If one accusation against an individual can be attributed to malice, jealousy or mental illness (or can be true), dozens of accusations coming from disparate and unrelated sources substantiate each other.

      Let us posit that he was guilty of all these crimes. These deeds warrant the death penalty, which in a sense, was carried out. So be it.

       Beyond the abuser, we have to look to heal his victims who bear no responsibility for his death, and console his family (wife, children, grandchildren, parents, and siblings) who are also guiltless, assuming – as all current information indicates – that they knew nothing of the criminal’s predations.

      Chief Rabbi Lau’s shivah visit to the family has been criticized, hotly by some of the usual suspects like the Jerusalem Post, which never misses an opportunity to attack religious Jews, the Rabbinate or the Torah. But it was also criticized by some rabbis who need to be reminded of Fitzgerald’s quote above. Consoling the victims and the family are, indeed, opposed ideas, at least superficially. But these ideas can be kept in mind and still allow us to function, particularly in line with Jewish law and custom.

      Is it a rabbi’s place to show support for a family that just a few months ago was stable and well respected, and has now collapsed? Of course. The family is understandably broken. Those who think that Rav Lau should have contented himself with visiting or calling after shivah do not understand the importance of his visit, which was to emphasize that the family must not be ostracized or stigmatized. The only way to show that was to appear, in person, even knowing his visit would be castigated.

      It is neither the first nor the last time that doing the right albeit controversial thing leads a rabbi into hot water. Such is life. And to those who argue that he should have reached out to the victims, well, who says he didn’t? The tendentious media that trumpets its stories with all the subtlety, substance, accuracy and careful contemplation of the average Twitter user. Don’t believe it.

      That being said, reports of glowing eulogies at the funeral of this miscreant, if accurate, are disgraceful. To be sure, eulogies are meant to shed a positive light on the deceased, not to maledict him. On the other hand, exaggerating a deceased’s accomplishments in the face of the pervasive evil that was attributed to him is perverse. Sometimes it is better to say little or nothing. Going to console the mourners is not the same as attending the funeral – perhaps justifiable also as support for the family – but going overboard on the eulogies is sinful. Those who allegedly eulogized the serial abuser as a “persecuted tzadik” are clueless fools, if not worse. (That conclusion is as theologically sound as averring that he died for our sins.) Those whose only conclusion from this tragic episode is to rail against the sin of lashon hara are disconnected from reality and cause detriment to Torah. Surely, lashon hara is a grave sin – so is rape and molestation, and so is standing by while lives are being endangered.

       Those who continue to deny that problems of abuse exist in their community are enablers of the worst kind.

       Nevertheless, we should be accurate and circumspect in judging any group for the sins of an individual. Predators exist everywhere, since time immemorial. There are Haredi predators, Modern Orthodox, Dati Leumi, Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated Jews, and Catholic and Muslim predators. There are predators who are priests, rabbis and imams, journalists and politicians, doctors and lawyers, teachers and professors, police officers, plumbers and piano teachers, producers and directors, actors and actresses, parents and step-parents. And at first, and shamefully, each group always rallies around its own accused. We do a disservice, and even mislead, when we harp on one group as particularly prone to this malevolence. It is a uniquely toxic blend of sickness and evil that should be beyond the capability of those who should know better and even those who may not know better. And yet it persists.

       Its endurance points to the impossibility of its eradication, something that no decent person wants to hear and no rational person will deny. What then can be done to minimize its prevalence and dastardly effects? There are several elements of society to consider – the victims, the parents, the police, the clergy, and the media. Each of them do not possess the tools to stamp out this phenomenon either individually or collectively but approached properly could limit its horror.

      The first line of defense is the parents, who must educate their children as to acceptable boundaries and the impropriety of physical contact by others. Parents must impress on their children that no adult is ever allowed to tell them to keep a secret from their parents, and that children should never be embarrassed or afraid to share with their parents anything that has happened to them. Children – boys and girls – should be informed of the laws of yichud, and try to not to be alone behind closed doors with any person, even a respected authority figure. And children should cry out immediately, run from their assailant, and immediately inform their parents.

      Parents should immediately inform the police. The legal authorities are in the best position to investigate these types of crimes, even if their investigations and prosecutions don’t always bear fruit. Often, the police are unhelpful when there is insufficient evidence, as indeed are rabbis, untrained as investigators and unaccustomed to dealing with reprobates. For sure, there are false accusations as well, and these accusations can ruin someone’s life, but the likelihood of false accusations dwindles to near zero when there are multiple, unrelated victims. And immediate action often unsettles the perpetrator and itself inhibits future misconduct.

       Victims should be encouraged to prosecute, and immediately, not ten years later. No one likes to blame the victims for anything, and prosecution and testimony can be frustrating and stressful. But it also saves lives. Sadly, I have dealt with this matter for decades as an attorney and then a rabbi, and most victims, for one reason or another (usually, the desire to just move on) do not want to prosecute. And that allows the predator to go on and on and on.

        Instead of prosecution, we are living in the world of trial by media, one of the more execrable phenomena of modern life. The media are unbounded by ethics, evidence or substance, and therefore often choose their targets based more on their agenda items than on the nature of the evidence. It is one of the worst forms of street justice; even Don Corleone’s justice was more equitable, legitimate and principled. The role of the media should be limited to publicizing the formal prosecution of alleged abusers, not publicizing the accusations of anonymous victims. That alone will garner sympathy for any accused. And suing for libel or slander for unfounded accusations is a non-starter, as it is widely ineffective especially in jurisdictions that elevate freedom of the press over the rights of an individual.

      As even one victim of abuse is too many, so too one life ruined because of a false accusation is also one too many.

      Sadly, this evil will always exist. Even the Torah’s judicial system had such inherent limitations that the king of Israel was authorized to execute his own justice for the protection of society when the legal system failed. Centuries ago, English courts featured the Star Chamber, also used when the traditional court system was of no avail. Both point to the insolubility of some crimes through classical means. Since such means are not available to us, we have to use other methods to protect the innocent and thwart the wicked.

       What might help is parents educating their children properly, developing with them a warm and open relationship so children feel comfortable sharing anything and parents are acutely sensitive to changes in their child’s temperament. The authorities must be informed immediately and the victims must be encouraged to file charges and testify. The clergy should be supportive of the victims and never coddle the accused. The media should report fairly and objectively, not assail others while shielding their own degenerates. Society should be educated as to the existence of the problem and how it can emerge from any individual in any group.

      We might not end this scourge – but we can isolate it and burn this evil from our midst.

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