Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No Longer Standing Silent

Interesting article in the Washington Post about Standing Silent, a documentary about sexual abuse among orthodox Jews. Not that orthodox Jews are remarkable in this regard -- if we have learned anything over the past 30 years, it is that children are sexually abused everywhere, every day. But among orthodox Jews the issue raises some of the same problems that we saw in the Catholic church, Penn State football, and anywhere else where people highly prize loyalty to the group or the institution:
There are also cultural reasons for silence, stemming at least in part from a Jewish law known as “mesirah,” which forbids informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. The law is integral to a culture of self-protection rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism, according to Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser of Yeshiva University in New York. Reporting sexual abuse first to a rabbi is the recommended protocol of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox umbrella group . . . . Blau, whose efforts to hold the community accountable for sexual abuse are highlighted in the documentary, says the protocol endangers children. He draws a parallel with the Roman Catholic Church, where a pervasive culture of silence and denial made clergy unlikely to pass abuse accusations along to police. “Why go to a rabbi? Are these rabbis qualified? Do you call the police if you want to find out if food is kosher?” said Blau. “The problem is the community doesn’t want to bring a shame on Orthodox Judaism if these crimes get reported. But I would argue that we have an obligation to protect our children first.”
Sexual abuse has long been seen as a sort of shameful moral act rather than a crime. Neither the Catholic church nor, I assume, Agudath Israel, thinks people should conceal murder from the "secular authorities." But the rape of children has been treated differently.

The good thing that has come out of exposing the reality of rampant sexual abuse is that we are changing that. Slowly, institutions are being forced to recognize that the sexual abuse of children is a terrible crime, and that their obligations to the victims, and to justice, are more important than their fear of shame. Next time you find yourself lamenting how lawsuit crazy America has become, and how quick people are to call their lawyers and demand a few million in compensation, remember that it is the lawsuits brought by victims that have made this happen. Without them and their lawyers and the huge verdicts handed by juries, none of this would be changing.

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