Locking up abusers is not the answer

Child abusers should be reported to the police, but the prison system does not help them control their urges


Reports about child sex abuse in the Orthodox community seem to be emerging with ever increasing frequency. A recent high-profile prosecution in Australia and yet another in New York involve cases of child sex abuse that began many years ago. So why have they come to light only now rather than being reported by victims, or their families, around the time the offences were committed?

What is apparent is that there is a reluctance to report such crimes for fear of reprisal within some communities because informing the authorities constitutes a serious biblical injunction referred to as mesirah. Instead, they insist that their own hierarchical bodies should deal with accusations internally.

Indeed, in response to Channel 4’s recent Dispatches programme, which investigated attitudes toward child sex abuse within the Charedi community of Stamford Hill, its rabbinical leaders scrambled to release a statement condemning all forms of sex abuse, while insisting that cases should be reported to a specially convened committee in the first instance.

This approach is wrong. 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 lies one of the fundamental problems. Too many people misunderstand, or underestimate, the severity of the psychological impact of sex abuse. I wonder if they are aware of the well-documented effects on victims of child sex abuse: guilt, inferiority complexes, depression and a high rate of attempted suicide.

Another reason why dealing with matters internally is flawed is because of the all too often overlooked fact that most paedophiles are repeat offenders. What some fail to grasp is that sexual abuse stems from mental instability.

Preying on the young or the vulnerable, who cannot or do not know how to defend themselves, suggests a toxic mix of narcissism, addiction and passive aggression. There is a reason why those convicted have to register on a sex-offenders list. It is 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.

The prohibition of mesirah is based on the premise that government authorities would typically deal harshly with Jews, persecuting them, incarcerating them or worse and often without trial. The stories of the poretz (noblemen) in the Soviet shtetl or the Kapos in Nazi Germany are ingrained in the Jewish psyche. However, an argument can be made that in matters concerning public safety, the authorities should be informed. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein makes a distinction between the courts of yesteryear and those of today where one is guaranteed a fair trial and where the police system operates entirely different (Oruch Hashulchan Choshen Mishpat 288:7.

Well, not entirely. The end result still appears to be much the same. While one might face a fair trial, it is 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 and which, arguably, could be applied to many sex offenders. But prisons should also be expected to help rehabilitate; usually, they have the very opposite effect. Prisons are mostly violent places. The National Geographic channel made a television series entitled Hard Time. Its website advertises 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 will end up in the same place as the Jew who endured untold suffering in some Soviet or German hellhole. Until such point as proper rehabilitation becomes part of the process, nothing will change in the way of thinking of those who refuse to report, and the whispering against mesirah remain.

The 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 is to share in the guilt.

It is reassuring that, in the main, the Jewish world is waking up to the reality of child sex abuse and that rabbinic bodies have issued edicts that it should be reported to the authorities. But for those lagging behind, something must be done to redress the balance so that potential sex abusers will think twice before acting, and in the event that they do, others will feel right about reporting them.

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