By Dr. Michael J. Salamon, originally published in the The New York Jewish Week.
Just last week a New York State licensed teacher, an admitted and convicted child molester, received what is being referred to as a sweetheart sentence for his crimes. This 31-year-old charedi man (JCW Admin Note: Moshe Friedman) sodomized a 6-year-old, bit his penis and among other threats put a gun to his head and warned that he would kill him and his family if he told anyone what happened. Yet this perpetrator received a sentence of probation from the court. No jail time for him. And he did not even have to register as a sex offender, something that under other circumstances would have at a minimum occurred.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the district attorney prosecuting this case was willing to make this deal, allowing a misdemeanor plea, despite the fact that the perpetrator was originally charged with first-degree felony sexual acts against a minor because there may have been no other option. It is reasonable to assume that either one of two scenarios played out prior to sentencing: either the parents of the 6-year-old molested boy did not want the child to testify, or the community put significant pressure on the family to not testify against the perpetrator.
This is not mere conjecture; it is based upon the history of avoidance of reporting to the authorities within this particular segment of the Orthodox community. Many cases have not even made it to a courtroom for these reasons and the result is that sexual predators have been able avoid any prosecution. Despite a law requiring anyone who provides health care or teaches children to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse to the authorities, reporting in this community rarely happens.
This case was resolved the same week that the first Kol v’Oz conference was held. As reported in The Jewish Week (“This Is Something We Can’t Ignore,” Feb. 10), Kol v’Oz is an organization whose mandate is to bring together international professionals from across the Jewish world to prevent child sexual abuse in the worldwide Jewish community.
I was among the presenters and attendees at this important gathering and had the opportunity to ask some questions of religious leaders who presented their perspectives on the problem, suggested interventions and their rationale for the best way to react to protect children.
In virtually all cases we discussed it was clear that a state law exists that more or less indicates that those caring for children who suspect child abuse must report it. This is true in Israel, where everyone is considered a mandated reporter. In the State of New York, the State Department of Education issued a clear ruling that even in private schools, anyone who works with children must report suspected abuse. This ruling by the department has no room for delaying or discussing a suspicion with anyone but the properly trained authorities. This makes a great deal of sense as it is only those professionals who know how to conduct a proper investigation who should do so. Further, any delay allows a perpetrator time to continue to offend, threaten those who he or she has already abused and make excuses for previous offenses.
There are those in the Jewish world, perhaps now a minority view, who argue that prior to reporting to the authorities, a rabbi should be consulted. When asked at the Kol v’Oz conference about this view, one rabbi would not take a position against it. My follow-up question to him was about licensed professionals who by law are mandated to report their suspicions immediately. Were these professionals, I asked, also supposed to ask a rabbi first or were they required to follow the law and report immediately?
The response I received was disconcerting. The rabbi started out by saying that he would not answer the question. He went on to suggest that the law was open to interpretation and a case could be made that a report may not have to be made instantly. I had several follow-up questions that I could not ask and they bother me still: Who assumes the responsibility of protecting the child during the delay, and if the state chooses to prosecute the professional for not reporting as required, will the Jewish community pay the legal fees?
I am not an attorney so I have only a limited understanding and even less of a stomach for the implications of the phrase “open to interpretation.” What I do know is that there should be no variability for interpretation of the best interests of a child. As long as we find ways to obstruct or subvert reasonable legal tools that help to remove abusers and move to more aggressively protect children, perpetrators will be able to continue getting away with their abuses — and even when caught may not receive an appropriate sentence for their perverted crimes.
Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently “Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Urim Publications).