Blind Faith and Child Sexual Abuse: Is Any Group Getting This Right?

The Catholic Church isn't the only denomination that has struggled with the concept of reporting accusations of child sexual abuse to the police, rather than trying to handle as much as possible internally in deference to ancient religious laws and the avoidance of scandal. Hasn't every religious group -- or secular organization that oversees children -- sinned at some level?

But just in case we needed a reminder, with a new press release from Agudath Israel of America, ultra-Orthodox Judaism seems to be jockeying for a close second in the "Seriously?! What about the children?!" department. The key excerpts:

Where there is "raglayim la'davar" (roughly, reason to believe) that a child has been abused or molested, the matter should be reported to the authorities...

However, where the circumstances of the case do not rise to the threshold level of raglayim la'davar, the matter should not be reported to the authorities. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, perhaps the most widely respected senior halachic authority in the world today, "I see no basis to permit" reporting "where there is no raglayim la'davar, but rather only 'eizeh dimyon' (roughly, some mere conjecture); if we were to permit it, not only would that not result in 'tikun ha'olam', it could lead to 'heres haolam' (destruction of the world)." ...

Because the question of reporting has serious implications for all parties, and raises sensitive halachic issues, the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment to determine the presence or absence of raglayim la'davar. Rather, he should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halacha and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation -- someone who is fully sensitive both to the gravity of the halachic considerations and the urgent need to protect children. (In addition, as Rabbi Yehuda Silman states in one of his responsa [Yeshurun, Volume 15, page 589], "of course it is assumed that the rabbi will seek the advice of professionals in the field as may be necessary.") It is not necessary to convene a formal bais din (rabbinic tribunal) for this purpose, and the matter should be resolved as expeditiously as possible to minimize any chance of the suspect continuing his abusive conduct while the matter is being considered.

Two obvious areas of concern, though others have also been noted on the FailedMessiah blog:

1. Who/what determines if an accusation is "reason to believe" vs. "mere conjecture?" (Keep in mind that under some interpretations of Jewish law, a 12-year-old victim can be considered an adult, two witnesses must confirm the crime and women may not count -- standards incompatible with modern-day criminal justice.)

2) In what way is a rabbi trained to investigate an abuse claim that falls under the "mere conjecture" category? Who are these rabbis who are experts in this area?

Sigh. Sounds familiar? Can we not agree that clergy are not CSI experts, and that suspected crimes should be reported promptly to the police for a proper investigation? Religious courts can conduct parallel investigations to handle issues like defrocking and spiritual counseling, but after all that's come to light in the past decade, it's shocking that there's still an argument being made among traditional Jews, Catholics and others that father/rabbi knows best.

This article first ran at Beliefnet's Belief Beat blog.