Covering up a shocking crime

While US and Israeli Charedi communities have been rocked by sex abuse, are we treating the issue seriously enough?


No subject has irritated the Orthodox world more, this year, than sexual abuse perpetrated by its religious leaders.

In America, the community has had to accept the arrest of 26 strictly Orthodox men in Brooklyn on charges of child molestation. Eight have been convicted; the rest await trial. Many of these have been extremely high-profile, for example Baruch Lebovits, a prominent rabbi who was convicted last month on six counts of sexual abuse. Earlier this year, he was also accused of abusing Motty Borger, a 24-year-old who committed suicide two days after his January wedding, having confided to his new bride that he had been molested as a teenager.

In Israel, the scandal of the year - in a state full of scandals - broke when a group of senior rabbis publicly accused Mordechai Elon, long regarded as the leading rabbi in the religious Zionist camp, of conducting long-term sexual relationships with several of his (male) students.

Meanwhile, the panel that exposed Rabbi Elon as a predator has admitted that it has privately issued sanctions to an unspecified number of other rabbis it believes are guilty of abuse.

It is very likely that we in the UK have our share of abusers, too

And here in the UK? Well, nothing much to report. No arrests; no charges; no scandals. It is possible, I suppose, that our community is particularly saintly. But, sadly, it seems far more likely that we are not so different from the Orthodox communities in New York and Jerusalem, and that we, too, have our share of abusers.

In fact, at least three of the men convicted overseas have British connections. Rabbi Lebovits claimed that as a teenager he himself had been a victim of abuse - by an uncle in London. Nachman Stal, convicted in Israel of the rape of one boy and indecent assault of another, managed to flee to the UK in 2006 on a fake passport and sheltered in Stamford Hill for two years. And American rabbi, Yisrael Weingarten, was found guilty last year of molesting his daughter in several countries, including England; he was a teacher, for a while, in a Satmar school here.

If this is what we are importing, how many home-grown abusers do we have as well?

In the light of events in the US and Israel (not to mention the Catholic church), this is a pressing question. Simply recognising that abuse is possible - including in our best institutions, by our most popular teachers and by rabbis - is half the battle.

Although statistically, the Orthodox are no more likely than any other group to suffer abuse, denial runs extremely deep. Witness, for example, the hundreds of young men who flocked to Rabbi Elon's home to show support, even after it was clear that he was not going to deny the charges.

The abuse needs to be taken seriously. Everyone needs to understand that it is the victim who needs to be protected - not the perpetrator.

In 1991, a Stamford Hill family was physically attacked by a mob for daring to report to the police that their children had been sexually abused. In that same neighbourhood today, communal figures are actively fundraising for Nachman Stal's legal expenses.

Meanwhile, in America, time and again, known abusers have been protected by their communities, sometimes for decades, just because they were respected rabbis or headmasters. The children were apparently expendable.

The good news is that the battle against abuse is winnable. Notably in the US, Orthodox attitudes to sexual abuse have undergone a seismic change, with awareness soaring over the past couple of years and senior rabbis and leaders encouraging victims to come forward, and to report crimes directly to the police, rather than trying to handle cases internally.

But this is still far from the norm. Vigilance is still required - from all of us.

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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