Getting a Grip on Religious Sex Abuse

Last night, British Channel 4's Dispatches programme did an exposé on attitudes within some of the Orthodox Jewish community in London toward sex abuse crimes. One particular victim went undercover to expose the way his community has for decades been dealing with paedophilia. It's been a year long investigation and it has sent shockwaves through much of the Anglo-Jewish community. Unfortunately this is one of many stories emerging of late. There was the high profile trial and conviction of an Orthodox Jewish "therapist" in Williamsburg, N.Y., and a lot of media attention focussed on a spiritual leader in Golders Green, London.

Often the community rallies around alleged offenders and ostracise the would-be victim. Edward Thorndike, president of the American Psychological Association in the early 20th century, coined a term called "the halo effect." The theory goes that we tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt based on personal image and stature. When we hear about a common man having committed an offence we immediately presume him to be guilty while feeling sorry for the victim. But when it's someone of stature in the community, we immediately presume that person's innocence while vilifying those who bring the accusations. As Thorndike put it, we make "a generalisation from the perception of one outstanding personality trait to an overly favourable evaluation of the whole personality."

Isn't that why Jimmy Saville got away with what he did for so long? I've spoken to several people involved in the music industry during the Saville era that now claim with hindsight that "Jimmy Saville was obviously up to no good." Only at the time they didn't see it. Like them, the hundreds who have clamoured to the support of a rabbi in London, the thousands who have done the same for one of their own in New York and the many more who immediately ostracise those bringing claims of sexual abuse, all suffer from the halo effect. After all who are you more likely to believe: a "skimpy clad, rebellious" teenage girl or a long frock coated, black-bearded therapist; a leading rabbi or a "desperate" divorcee; a "troubled" student or a popular star-studded teacher?

Many communities insist that their own hierarchical bodies should deal with accusations internally rather than them being reported to the police. Indeed in response to the Dispatches programme, the Ultra-Orthodox community in London scrambled to release a statement condemning all forms of sex abuse, but at the same time insisting that all matters should be reported to a specially convened committee in the first instance. This is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, would they also insist that a murder should be reported to them for consideration? To treat sexual abuse any different is to undermine the enormity of the crime and the gravity of the damage caused to victims.

Therein lays one of the fundamental problems. Too many people misunderstand or undermine the enormity of the psychological impact of sex abuse. One young man from Manchester recalled how he was repeatedly molested as a child, only his parents decided not to report it because they knew the guilty party and it would have ruined his family. In other words they were more concerned about the effect an arrest and conviction would have on the family of the abuser than they were with the welfare of their own son. I wonder if they were even aware of the well documented effects on victims of child sex abuse: guilt, inferiority complexes, depression and a high rate of attempted suicide. Perhaps, they thought, their son wasn't "damaged" after all he was portraying a happy-go-lucky demeanour throughout adolescence. So did Motty Borger, but it all came back to haunt him two days into his honeymoon when he confided about his abuse to his new bride then later jumped from the seventh-floor balcony of their hotel room.

Another reason why dealing with matters internally is utterly flawed is because of the all too often overlooked fact that most paedophiles are repeat offenders. What these people fail to grasp is that sexual abuse stems from mental instability. Preying on the young or the vulnerable who can't or don't know how to defend themselves, suggests a toxic mix of narcissism, addiction and passive aggression. There's a reason why those convicted have to register on a sex-offenders list. It's because they always run the risk of repeating the offence. Internal committees can at best reprimand the perpetrator such that he might feel truly chastised and guilty, but he'll also most likely go on to repeat the offence.

I think one of the main reasons there is reluctance to report such hideous crimes is because of a certain psychology embedded in the Jewish mindset associated with reporting to authorities. The oft touted biblical prohibition of mesirah (lit. handing over to authorities) was based on the premise that government authorities would typically deal harshly with Jews, persecuting them, incarcerating them or worse and often without trial. The well documented stories of the Poretz in the Soviet shtetl or the Kapos in Nazi Germany are ingrained in the psyche of the Jew. However, a modern day police system in a democratic society operates entirely different.

Well, not entirely. The end result still appears to be much the same. While one might face a fair trial, it's difficult to suggest that one gets a fair punishment. Judaism frowns on the general notion of a prison system. The idea of remaining locked up like an animal in a cage for so many years is deemed inhumane and self-defeating. And while it can be rightly argued that one has to adhere to the law of the land and thus to know in advance that doing the crime means you'll be doing the time -- nonetheless, the prison system is hardly serving the purpose it was surely intended for.

Prisons are punishment for crimes committed. They also help keep society protected from repeat offenders -- the one aspect of incarceration which Judaism does sanction, thus could arguably be applied to many sex offenders. But prisons should also be expected to help rehabilitate, though they usually have the very opposite effect. Prisons are mostly violent places. The National Geographic channel made a television series entitled "Hard Time." On their website they advertise the show with the caption, "in prison, every day is a fight for survival." As one inmate put it, "There are only two types of people in here, predators and prey." Sex offenders are known to be the most vulnerable prey.

Perhaps the fear of reporting is directly correlated to the perceived end result. You might get a fairer trial but you'll end up in the same place as the Jew who endured untold suffering in some Soviet or German hellhole. Until such point as "don't drop the soap in the shower" is no longer a joke and proper rehabilitation becomes part of the process, nothing will change in the way of thinking of those who refuse to report, and mesirah will continue to get bantered about.

To be sure, this is analysing, not justifying. It is reassuring that in the main the Jewish world is waking up to the reality of child sex abuse and that rabbinic bodies are issuing a "must report" edict. But for those lagging behind, something must be done to redress the balance such that potential sex abusers will think twice before acting, and in the event that they do, others will feel right about reporting them.

When the Church abuse scandals were first exposed at the early part of this century it emerged that such abuse was endemic even as the Holy See might have been painfully slow to deal with what was going on right under their altars. It is becoming increasingly apparent that certain rabbinic figureheads or bodies have also become adept at turning a blind eye to abuse or simply undermining it. A message must go out to all segments of society including every religious community that sex abuse is a severe crime. The consequences to victims are real. The response must be robust. Not to deal with it forthright is to share in the guilt. Only then can we start to heal.