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 this was a problem in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community from a middle-aged friend, who told of being sexually abused as a teenager both by his yeshiva teacher and a therapist.

The therapist fled to Israel in 1984, where he remains at large. The response from the yeshiva when the dean was told about the teacher's abuse was to bully the family into silence.

Hirsch and his friend finally succeeded, in 2006, after six federal lawsuits and a feature article in a New York magazine, in getting the yeshiva to place the teacher on a “leave of absence.”

So Hirsch learned about the reluctance of rabbis and Jewish community leaders to report child sexual abuse, even when they privately admit they have heard and believed the allegations.

There are hundreds of such stories in ultra-Orthodox communities worldwide, Hirsch says.  Perpetrators who have molested dozens of children have never been reported to the authorities and remain in their positions, despite continuing complaints.

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.

Victims, when they do report, go to a trusted rabbi or leader, not to the secular authorities, only to find themselves facing a conspiracy of silence in which the accuser is blamed to protect both the perpetrator and the community's 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 legal seminar, for instance, that allegations of child abuse must first be reported to rabbis, and may be reported to secular authorities only with a special dispensation from the rabbi.

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.

The Orthodox Jewish liaison employed by Hynes, ostensibly as a nod to cultural sensitivity, Hirsch says, pressures child victims into dropping charges.  Victims who insist on pressing charges, he says, end up with soft plea deals that avoid jail time or sex offender registration, and perpetrators who intimidate witnesses are never prosecuted.

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

Hirsch calls out national ultra-Orthodox social services agency Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services for treating unreported pedophiles and serving as a barrier 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, particularly when compared to the level of attention that the Catholic pedophile priest and the Penn State pedophile coach scandals have received.  The New York Times has published only two stories about child sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community within the past 5 years.

Those responsible for the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, says Hirsch, were held accountable largely due to extensive mainstream media coverage.  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.

The work of empowerment, he says, 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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