A painful lesson on child sexual abuse

A painful lesson on child sexual abuse

New York Jewish Week staff writer Hannah Dreyfus has produced a thorough and compelling report on an alleged pedophile in Baltimore whose sterling reputation as a rabbinic educator may have blinded leaders and others in the Orthodox community from fully protecting children against sexual abuse (see page 1).

As a result, despite the fact that experts at Child Protective Services determined that the rabbi may have sexually abused young boys, ages 7 and 8 — in his role as a counselor at a Jewish summer day camp two summers ago — he continues to teach youngsters in a day school and lead a Shabbat service for children with disabilities.

Some community leaders may not have been fully aware of the details of the case and believed that the rabbi, who denies any misconduct, was found innocent, and fully exonerated, which is not true. Others may have fallen prey to what Shira M. Berkovits, an expert in abuse prevention in the Jewish community, calls “cognitive dissonance.” She notes that “when a respected religious leader is accused of a morally repugnant crime, the impulse not to believe goes to the core.” In this case, many people concluded the accusations were false; they rallied around the rabbi rather than making a full effort to put “best practices” into effect in supporting the three alleged victims’ families and protecting

“It is extremely rare to have a false allegation of child sexual abuse,” according to Victor Vieth, a nationally recognized expert in child abuse prevention familiar with the Baltimore case. “The more victims there are, the less likely it is that the accused is innocent.” He said the likelihood of three separate allegations being false “is equivalent to the same person being struck by lightning three times. It is improbable enough to stagger the imagination.”

We have seen too many cases of child sexual abuse where our Jewish institutions — camps, schools, and synagogues — have good intentions but insufficient policies and procedures in place. Their first priority must be to keep children safe. That means taking responsibility rather than passing it on or assuming problems are being dealt with by others. Our standards for those who teach or serve as counselors for our children must be the highest. As Rabbi Yosef Blau, a longtime advocate for victims of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, noted, “not having enough evidence to convict someone of child sexual abuse” is an embarrassingly low standard for a community to have when it comes to protecting its children.

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