In an unprecedented and crucially positive step forward, 300 Orthodox Rabbis signed a proclamation regarding child safety in the Orthodox Jewish community. Synagogues and schools are called upon to adopt certain preventative measures outlined in the document to deter child abuse and child sexual abuse. The Rabbinic signatories consist of member Rabbis of the Orthodox Union (OU), Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Yeshiva University (YU).
The proclamation and the complete list of signatories can be viewed here: https://drive.google.com/file/
Some of the proclamation’s prominent signers include: Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beth Din, Beth Din of America, Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President, RCA, Rabbi Shalom Baum, President, RCA, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive VP Emeritus, OU, Rabbi Marc Penner, Dean, RIETS, YU, Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, Dean Emeritus, RIETS, YU, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, Rabbi, Young Israel of West Hempstead, NY, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, and Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Beth Jacob of Atlanta, GA.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, who assisted in spearheading this initiative, applauds the “overwhelming support” of the signers and appeals to all communities “to implement the policies advocated in this statement.” Rabbi Dr. Leonard Matanky, prior President, RCA, agrees that in addition to creating policies, it is our responsibility to “work to assure that our schools, synagogues and institutions offer safe environments for our children and our families. We must stand up and support all who fight abuse and those who defend the abused.” Underscoring the gravity of the need for reform, he warns, “Our Torah and our future depend on our strength and conviction to place our children first, and to heed the calls of our rabbinic leadership to report abuse to the authorities.”
The proclamation commences by honoring the memories of individuals in the Orthodox Jewish community who tragically committed suicide as a result of enduring child sexual abuse. The gravity of this issue is linked in the proclamation to a passage in the Torah, “Do not stand by while your fellow’s blood is being spilled” (Leviticus 19:16). Prominent signer Rabbi Hershel Billet, Rabbi, Young Israel of Woodmere, succinctly expresses the gravity of the effects of child sexual abuse, stating, “Every sexual abuser is a potential murderer. They destroy the souls of their victims and at times cause the death of their victims.”
The Rabbinic signatories are united in their agreement that sex offenders should face the consequences deemed appropriate by secular authorities, rather than taken care of internally by community leaders. The proclamation stresses, “We condemn attempts to ignore allegations of child sexual abuse. These efforts are harmful, contrary to Jewish law, and immoral. The reporting of reasonable suspicions of all forms of child abuse and neglect directly and promptly to the civil authorities is a requirement of Jewish law.” Exclusive to this proclamation is the clear assertion that, “there is no need for people acting responsibly to seek rabbinic approval prior to reporting.” This declaration is clearly backed by Torah law as clarified by Rabbi Billet. He notes that, “Since abuse of children is a life threatening crime, we must report immediately. We must trust responsible civil authorities in a just country to be able to separate fact from fiction.”
This proclamation follows a similar Kol Koreh (public proclamation) signed by Rabbinical Judge, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst along with over 100 haredi Rabbis in August 2015 affirming “that any individual with reasonable basis to suspect child abuse has a religious obligation to promptly notify the secular law enforcement of that information.” Senior haredi halachic authority, Rabbi Dovid Cohen concurred on the Headlines radio program that one should report abuse allegations “directly” to the civil authorities and that it is unnecessary to receive a Rabbi’s prior authorization.
Michael Salamon, PhD, a clinical psychologist and noted expert in this field, asserts, “The longer it takes to report the more time the abuser has to keep abusing and creating alibis. Only trained investigators with proper professional team support (e.g. police, medical, etc.) can investigate. Asking anyone else about reporting just delays or confounds or completely derails a proper investigation. That is why so many abusers have been able to move to different communities and continue to abuse.” Signer Rabbi Yosef Blau, Senior Mashgiach Ruchani, RIETS/YU, emphasizes, “Requiring a victim of sexual abuse to first gain approval from a Rabbi or therapist before reporting the abuse to the authorities is damaging to the victim, whose credibility has been questioned, and hampers the investigation by possibly affecting the description of what occurred.” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb explains, “Perpetrators of abuse must be made aware that their heinous deeds will result in swift, certain, and severe legal consequences. Only such awareness will deter them from those deeds.”
Rabbi Yosef Blau, clarifies the reason why some Rabbis urge victims to first consult with them. “Rabbis who have been consulted have often used concerns for the image of the community to discourage the victim and his or her family from speaking to the police.” The concept of asking a Rabbi first has no basis in halacha (Jewish law) but rather can be a method of silencing the victims. Furthermore, Dr. Salamon asserts that “Therapists can lose their license if they attempt to ‘investigate.’ Be aware that the overwhelming majority of reports – in the vicinity of 95%, or more – are accurate. It takes a lot for someone to finally come forward and tell someone that they have been abused.” The fear that without Rabbis sifting through allegations there would be a high percentage of false allegations is similarly incorrect. James A. Cohen, associate professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, warns, “Encouraging delay in reporting a crime, particularly a crime against a child, is obstructing justice.”
The rabbis uniting in signing this document also clarify misconceptions that the laws of lashon hara (derogatory speech about another individual) apply when it comes to exposing molesters’ identities. One of the policies the proclamation asks all institutions to adopt is that “members of the community must be made aware when a sex offender moves in to a community.” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Senior Rabbi, Ahavath Torah, Englewood, NJ, explains this halachic calculation by saying that, “given the overarching concern for the continued safety of potential victims, such reporting does not fall under the rubric of halachically prohibited speech and tale-bearing.” Rabbi Billet adds, “It is a mitzvah to expose abusers and a sin to remain silent.” Rabbi Yosef Blau states, “Misuse of halachic concepts such as lashon hara and mesira have protected the abusers and increased the trauma of the victims.”
Another issue that this proclamation confronts typically comes about even after a victim actually reports to the authorities. The abused and his/her family are often ostracized in their communities in multiple ways. The proclamation unambiguously prohibits such behavior, stating, “Regardless of the standing of the abuser, accusers and their family members must be treated in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner so that they feel safe and can therefore speak frankly and fully…Shunning or encouraging social ostracism of victims, their families, or reporters is forbidden.” Rabbi Goldin urges the community to provide strong support to victims, saying, “Too often, those who report such crimes are ostracized by their neighbors. Victims, their families and their supporters who are courageous enough to come forward should be treated with dignity and respect. The bravery they show in sharing the pain of their personal experiences is deserving of honor.”
This proclamation was appropriately released in anticipation of the High Holidays, a time of introspection and communal repentance. Rabbinic signers remorsefully admit, “We recognize in light of past experiences that our community could have responded in more responsible and sensitive ways to help victims and to hold perpetrators accountable.” The proclamation culminates with the final step of repentance: committing oneself to improvement. “Ultimately, it is the halachic and moral obligation of the entire Jewish community, individually and collectively, to do all in our power to safeguard our children by preventing abuse and responding appropriately once instances of abuse have occurred.”
This proclamation, as well as the Kol Koreh regarding child sexual abuse in the haredi community that was led by Agudath Israel of Chicago Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst and signed by over 100 haredi Rabbis in August 2015, was organized by activist David Nyer, LCSW of Highland Park, NJ. To add your name along with the current signors, please email [email protected].