11/23/11

The Plight of Ultra-Orthodox Child Sex Abuse Victims

Ben Hirsch, co-founder and president of Survivors for Justice, a victim advocacy organization focused on preventing child sexual abuse, first learned that it was a problem in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community from a middle-aged friend who told him of being sexually abused as a teenager by both his yeshiva teacher and a therapist.

The pedophile therapist fled to Israel in 1984, where he remains at large. When the friend told the dean of the yeshiva about the abuse, the school's response was to bully his family into silence. In 2006, after six federal lawsuits and a New York magazine feature article, Hirsch and his friend finally succeeded in getting the yeshiva to place the teacher on a “leave of absence."

That's how Hirsch learned about how reluctant rabbis and Jewish community leaders are to report child sexual abuse, even when they privately admit that they have heard -- and believed -- the allegations.

There are hundreds of similar stories in ultra-Orthodox communities worldwide, Hirsch says.  The facts are devastating: boys raped in mikvehs; students pushed into classrooms and fondled or forced to engage in sex acts by teachers; nighttime staff "visits" to campers; boys molested by bar mitzvah tutors and cantors; children molested by a parent, sibling, uncle or household guest.

Perpetrators who have molested dozens of children have never been reported to the authorities and remain in their positions, despite continuing complaints. Victims, when they do report, go to a trusted rabbi or leader, not the secular authorities, only to find themselves facing a conspiracy of silence in which the community blames the accuser to protect both the perpetrator and its own reputation.

The only way around the well-known taboo within the ultra-Orthodox community against reporting a Jew to the secular authorities, Hirsch concluded, is to ensure that allegations of child sexual abuse are reported directly to social services and the police. His organization was founded in 2008 in an effort to empower Orthodox victims of child sexual abuse to do just that.

Not surprisingly, it has met strong resistance from within the ultra-Orthodox community. Agudath Israel of America, a national ultra-Orthodox lobbying organization, recently asserted at a legal seminar, for instance, that allegations of child abuse must first be reported to the rabbi, and may be reported to secular authorities only with the rabbi's permission. Neither Agudath Israel nor Brooklyn District Attorney Charlie Hynes have chosen to address the fact that this practice could violate New York State’s mandatory reporting statute, Hirsch says.

According to Hirsch, the Orthodox Jewish liaison Hynes hired, ostensibly as a nod to cultural sensitivity, pressures child victims into dropping charges.  Victims who insist on pressing charges, he says, end up with soft plea deals that include no jail time or sex offender registration; and perpetrators who intimidate witnesses are never prosecuted.

Hirsch sees Hynes' "velvet glove" treatment of child sex abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community as reflecting the prosecutor's fear of the power of the Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish voting bloc.

Hirsch has called out national ultra-Orthodox social services agency Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services for treating unreported pedophiles and for stepping between the community and law enforcement, and Brooklyn's volunteer Boro Park Shomrim patrol for keeping a secret list of child molesters.

Government and the mainstream media have ignored the plight of Orthodox child victims, Hirsch says, comparing the level of attention that the Catholic pedophile priest and the Penn State pedophile coach scandals have received to just two New York Times articles about child sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community within the past 5 years.

Those responsible for the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, said Hirsch, were held accountable largely due to extensive mainstream media coverage.  Left unchecked by the mainstream media, Hirsch believes that the ultra-Orthodox leadership -- and the Brooklyn DA's office -- will continue to cover up child molestation in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Ultimately, the work of empowerment, he said, requires that state legislatures, attorneys general and the federal government strengthen and enforce child sexual abuse reporting laws, eliminating all faith-based diversions from reporting.

The article from Jewish Week.

More on Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish voting bloc [Brooklyn Politics.]

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