New legislation adding clergy to those professionals who are legally required to report suspected child abuse is being welcomed by a wide range of rabbinic leaders and those who work with victims, but it is being opposed by an influential group in the fervently Orthodox community.
As Catholic Church officials struggle to deal with a flood of lawsuits over the sexual abuse of children by priests, the New York state Senate unanimously passed the measure. The Assembly is preparing a similar bill.
The legislation comes as Manhattan’s largest Reform congregation, Temple Emanu-El, remains silent on the sexual abuse charges against its cantor, though its leadership had information about the allegations before Howard Nevison was arrested last month. (See accompanying story.)
Professionals who come into contact with children — doctors, nurses and dentists, schoolteachers and administrators, psychologists, social workers, child care workers and law enforcement staff — must report to the state any suspected abuse.
But clergy have been exempt from the requirement in New York since 1828, when the state Legislature became the first in the nation to protect the “clergy-penitent privilege.” The law has stood through the efforts of the Catholic Church and Agudath Israel of America, which have blocked measures for change at the state and local levels.
This time, however, the Church is staying out of the fray, leaving only Agudath Israel, which represents the interests of fervently Orthodox Jews on a variety of issues, in opposing the addition of clergy to the law.
The organization, whose offices are essentially closed for the Passover holiday, is still undecided on whether it will formally oppose the bills, said David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president for governmental and public affairs.
But, he said, if the law is passed without any exemption for clergy-penitent privilege, some Orthodox rabbis may choose not to comply with it.
“If the law tells the rabbis ‘you’ve got to go to the authorities on this’ and the rabbis feel that, for instance, a case of abuse goes back seven years and the best way to deal with it now is to refer the man to therapy rather than to law enforcement, they will choose to deal with it themselves,” said Zwiebel, who is also an attorney.
“You decide where your first duties and obligations are,” he said.
Illustrating the position of some in the haredi community, an Orthodox pediatrician in Brooklyn who has lectured on child abuse and disseminated tapes of her speeches has said that though she is required to report suspicions of child abuse, she checks with her rabbi to get permission.
Psychology professionals who work with victims of sexual and physical abuse say the new law will likely help their young victims.
It “makes it easier for clergy to do the right thing,” said Herb Neiburg, who directs behavioral medicine at the psychiatric Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, N.Y., and teaches pastoral counseling at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
“When something is mandated by law, it takes away the guilt over breaking what used to be this old type of priest-penitent relationship,” he said.
“The tough part will be when clergy hear that other clergy have molested kids. It’s always tough to turn in a colleague, but it has to get done,” said Neiburg. “This law will open that door.”
Leaders of the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and centrist Orthodox movements have all publicly voiced support for the legislation.
But those who work with the fervently Orthodox say it may not work in their community, which is suspicious of secular authority and has its own way of dealing with problems — relying on rabbinic judgment.
“People go to rabbonim [rabbis] to talk,” said David Mandel, chief executive officer of the Brooklyn-based Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. “This law may discourage people from going to talk to their rabbis if they think that the conversation is going to be on the record.”
That, Neiburg argues, “is like saying that since pediatricians are mandated reporters, no one will bring a kid with injuries that could look like abuse to a pediatrician, and it obviously doesn’t work that way.”
Even so, said Mandel, “the legislation may be premature” for the Orthodox community.
“Legislation will not necessarily dramatically improve the way the Orthodox community handles these issues,” he said. “Continuing to educate the community, to remove the stigma from the victim and his or her family and put the onus on the offender, will make the most dramatic changes.”