The problem of sexual abuse against children in our community is a stubborn one. The truth regarding this is very complex — addressing it requires nuance and complexity, and not merely good wishes and love. No one wants abuse to occur, and we all want to preserve what is valuable in the Jewish educational system.
Here are six basic policy points I offer as a guide to moving forward:
First, it is vitally important that we abandon all hope of self-policing on these matters. When there is a reasonable basis for allegation of abuse, the proper secular authorities must be called and the person in question must be subject to a thorough and complete investigation by them. This cannot be done by a panel of rabbis or by members of a school board. Only those who are outside of our community, and who come without predetermined impressions, can successfully do this.
A cover-up — or the appearance of one — exacerbates the scandal and reduces the likelihood that abuse will be detected.
Second, we must recognize that false accusations are sometimes raised; the rights of those who have been accused are also important. No one should be tried in the press or attacked by anonymous accusations. The media plays an important watchdog role, making sure that accusations are fairly and transparently investigated.
While newspapers serve a valuable purpose of pressing for an initial investigation, they are almost never the right channel to conduct such an investigation. Particularly in an era of anonymous Internet accusations, we have to maintain a presumption of innocence in the face of an accusation. A low threshold to determine guilt drives competent people out of communal service, which also hurts the Jewish community.
These observations are only of value if we open ourselves and our institutions to external investigations that punish those who are guilty and exonerate those who are not. This is especially true given that many school officials are mandatory reporters of abuse against children, and it is a crime for them not to report them to secular authorities.
Related to this is the need to protect the privacy rights and the identity of both those who make accusations and those who are accused and exonerated. Procedure needs to be in place so that when an investigation takes place, names and accusations are not released to the public until there is a determination that such is proper. False accusations — just like unpunished abusers — are a violation of people’s basic rights.
Third, we must distinguish between criminal abuse, civil abuse, verbal abuse and bad teaching skills. Verbal abuse, such as bullying from a teacher or peer, is neither proper nor good, but accusations of “abuse” that conflate the many different categories of abuse — sexual, physical, emotional or verbal — and treat them all as the same or as equally heinous crimes diminish the sense of violation for those who suffer in ways that no one should.
Sexual contact with students ought to be prosecuted to the full force of the law, and it should not be tolerated anywhere in our community. Physical contact and emotional abuse are more complex and hard to evaluate, and should be left to experts to determine.
Fourth, many accusations of abuse will never be determined as true or false beyond any reasonable doubt. We have to think long and hard as a community as to how we want to handle cases where abuse is alleged but no charges are brought, despite the fact that many people think that the accusation is “plausible” or “reasonable” or even “very likely true.” Our criminal justice system punishes only the clearly guilty, and our media absolves only the clearly innocent — but that does not tell us whom our schools, synagogues and other institutions should employ.
How do we want to treat people with a cloud over them? Should we err on the side of caution and remove these teachers from the classroom? Do we risk that, in the long run, no quality teacher will want to work for our schools when they have no protection against accusations that cannot be proven? How do we want to address the problem of teachers who are accused of unproven abuse and seek another job in a different school? Should unproved abuse allegations follow them? Do we want to have a formal database for such accusations and their resolution? These are hard questions for which no one has yet established the right policy answers.
All people of good will agree on how to address the cases where abuse is clearly proven or disproven. Ambiguous cases are tearing our community apart, and we have yet to agree on the proper resolution of even the most basic issue present: In cases of uncertainty, do we want to err on the side of the safety of our children and destroy the teaching career of those accused, or do we want to grant teachers reasonable rights not to be removed from their profession unless — at a minimum — an accusation is “most likely” correct?
We need a better system for checking references for teacher-candidates.
Fifth, the distant past is long behind us, and secular law has statutes of limitations for a good reason. It is both very hard to prove and very hard to disprove allegations of misconduct and abuse when they are decades old. None of this should diminish our deep empathy for those who were abused, and we need to do all that we can do to help reduce their pain and encourage therapy for the victims and repentance by abusers.
Part of the solution to this problem is to eliminate the hesitancy parents and adolescents have to present such claims when the events happen. Part of the solution is to welcome such investigations — but also to understand that ancient accusations are frequently less provably true or false than current ones. The most important component of the solution is to set up a proper system that encourages prompt reporting of abuse, honest investigations of allegations and punishment for violations.
Sixth, we need to provide more and better training about abuse and its prevention — standard in much of corporate and academic America, and normal in the training of all public school teachers. This training provides a few different tools to diminish abuse in our schools. We must train staff to recognize and report problems. We must train children about proper and improper touching and what to do — who to tell — if it happens.
We will never eliminate pedophiles. We need to make sure that our children are not targets of abuse in or out of schools and camps.
Finally, the open, warm, available, caring relationship between teachers and students that is the hallmark of our educational system can be lost if we adopt rules that are not nuanced, and which would reduce abuse without regard to what it does to the positive values of a Jewish education. We need to have zero tolerance for abuse while insuring that our Jewish educational system remains successful.
If our community is to actually address the problems of abuse in a way that allows us to avoid the terrible pitfalls that other communities have suffered, it will only be if we honestly address the issues posed by abuse and avoid solutions that destroy all that is good in the Jewish educational system as a casualty of rooting out abuse. Such a nuanced solution would show a little more logic and a little less emotion.
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University and has served in many different rabbinic positions over the last 25 years.