Job for the cops, not the rabbis

How should the Orthodox community handle allegations of sexual abuse? The scandal currently rocking London's Charedi world provides a classic example of how not to do it.

Last year, senior rabbi Chaim Halpern was accused of inappropriate behaviour towards around 30 women who had come to him for counselling. While the exact allegations have never been made public, it is hard to overstate the impact on the Charedim of Golders Green - where the rabbi lives - and Stamford Hill, where the alleged victims came from. Rabbi Halpern belongs to one of the most influential rabbinic families in London, and was himself a religious judge for the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

In Golders Green, local rabbis examined the evidence together with several dayanim of the London Beth Din, and Rabbi Halpern resigned from all public positions other than his synagogue. When his shul continued to attract worshippers, the examining rabbis published an open letter claiming that he was "not fit and proper to act in any rabbinic capacity".

Under pressure, the Union announced that it would set up its own religious court to issue judgment, a move some Golders Green residents have taken as an insult to their own rabbis. Eventually, the Union expelled Halpern's shul, but bizarrely retracted the edict within 24 hours following a confrontation with Halpern's brother.

There has been no justice for the women

The whole episode has turned from tragedy into farce. And yet no one seems to have reached the obvious conclusion: that this case proves the Orthodox community is unable to deal with allegations of this nature internally, and that such cases must be turned over, immediately, to the police.

Unlike in America (and Stamford Hill), the Golders Green rabbis cannot be accused of trying to sweep problems under the carpet. Charedi rabbis Shimon Weingarten and Berel Knopfler, and London Beth Din dayanim Chanoch Ehrentreu, Menachem Gelley and Yonason Abraham deserve utmost respect for their refusal to shield their colleague.

But even they must recognise that their efforts have failed. There has been no justice for the women, whose plight has been forgotten as the drama unfolds. The rabbis' good intentions have been stymied at every turn by the personal and political considerations of those with the interests of the Union and the Halpern family at heart - not those of the alleged victims.

While a beth din can handle issues of divorce, conversion and certain arbitrations, rabbis should not be handling potentially criminal cases. They do not have the jurisdiction, the capabilities or the process. They are not experts on the subject of abuse and cannot gather or evaluate evidence like a secular court, nor protect witnesses or enforce judgment. For that matter, should the rabbi be found guilty of taking sexual advantage of women, what punishment could they possibly impose that would be appropriate?

Perhaps "community policing" was suitable in 17th-century Poland. But this country has a respectable legal system. To pretend that allegations of sexual misconduct should be judged by rabbis rather than by the secular authorities is to advance the folly that frum Jews are somehow above the law.

Waiting for the rabbis' resolution, the women involved have not co-operated with the Metropolitan Police, which is still assessing whether Rabbi Halpern has a criminal case to answer. The rabbis must actively encourage them to come forward; disclose any evidence they may hold, and, with a long-term view, start fostering an atmosphere where going to the authorities is not a betrayal, but the only option.

The choice is not between handling abuse accusations discreetly within the community, or embarrassingly in public. The choice is between dealing with them through the state - or not having them dealt with
properly at all.

Last updated: 11:45am, January 11 2013