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Should we always report theft from a charity to the police?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life

    Question:  A member of our community stole money from a charitable fund. When the theft was discovered, a colleague of his repaid it. Should we have reported it to the police or were we right to deal with it internally?  

    Rabbi Brawer:There are two factors that often inform the choices Jewish organisations make in similar instances. 


    The first is a survival instinct that all organisations share. No organisation wants negative publicity. Reporting a theft or worse can be highly embarrassing, especially if the perpetrator was a member of the organisation or community. The instinct is to hush up the matter and sort it out internally so that the organisation’s reputation is upheld. One sees this defensive position taken in all sorts of organisations from financial institutions to religious bodies.


    The second factor is unique to the Jewish community and it harks back to a time when living under harsh gentile dominion, the most reprehensible thing a Jew could do was to report a fellow Jew to the authorities. This concept known in Hebrew as mesirah (a moser means an informer) is not applicable today in societies that are governed by the rule of law and it is never applicable where remaining silent might lead the perpetrator to victimise others. Yet despite our changed reality, there remains for some a deep discomfort in reporting a fellow Jew to the authorities.


    Did your organisation do the right thing by dealing with this matter internally? There was a time when I would have sympathised with your colleague but I have since come to the firm conclusion that all crimes without exception ought to be reported promptly to the authorities. In many situations there may well be a legal requirement to report the crime and failure to comply would be a violation of the law. 


    Organisations are healthier when they are transparent and potential criminals need to know that they will not get preferential treatment. Some of the worst abuses that took place in faith communities, particularly in the area of child abuse, were the result of perpetrators knowing that if caught, they would get away with their crimes because the community lacked the nerve to go public.


    From a moral perspective there can be no justification for protecting a criminal from the rule of law. If there are mitigating circumstances, one can rest assured that they will be taken into full account by those trained in the law and weighed accordingly. 


    Finally covering up a crime is not only unjust to the victims, but in the long term it is also harmful to the criminal. Getting away with a crime can often only embolden a criminal to continue, if not expand, his criminal behaviour.

    Rabbi Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

    Rabbi Romain: We will need several hands to unravel the complexities behind this question.


    On the one hand, a theft was committed and the law against stealing was broken. On the other hand, no material damage was done to the charity, as the money was regained.


    On another hand, there would have been considerable amount of alarm when the theft was first discovered, as well as distress as to what might unfold. On yet another hand, there was a cost to the colleague who provided the replacement funds.


    There is a feeling in some circles that one should not hand over a Jew to a non-Jewish court. This is for three reasons: first, it dates back to a time when there was social warfare between Jews and the surrounding population, with mutual disrespect. This is not the case today.


    Second, it was assumed that Jews would not get a fair trial, whereas now there is full equality before the law and courts are impartial.


    Third was the fear that the case would bring shame on the wider Jewish community and that the vast number of law-abiding co-religionists would be tainted by the misdeeds of reckless individuals. 


    Maxwell and Madoff prove this is true to a limited extent, but more in the minds of Jews themselves than in actuality, and certainly not to the extent to prevent justice being pursued.


    The only reason that might stop the theft being reported is the motive behind it. If, for instance, it was greed, then it is hard to see why it should not be punished. 


    However, if it was to pay for urgent medical treatment unavailable on the NHS, then there might be a case for not going to the police if certain conditions applied: clear expression of regret, all parties agree, a plan by which the money is repaid over time plus interest, and an ongoing system of monitoring to prevent future lapses, lest leniency now lead to mores crimes in the future. Judaism does believe in second chances. That is the purpose of Yom Kippur - and repentance at any time throughout the year, so that the mistakes of the past are not a permanent albatross around our neck. 


    Half-decent motives do not make crimes any less criminal, nor do they excuse a person from public exposure, but there may be highly exceptional circumstances where guilt and recompense are done privately.

    Rabbi Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Reform Synagogue

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