The latest reports of the still-widening sex abuse scandal among priests in the Catholic Church are leading closer to Pope Benedict XVI himself, an almost unimaginable predicament for the Vatican. Fortunately, there is no comparison in terms of the depth and scope of the problem in the Jewish community, but what is disturbingly similar is the reaction among clergy in power to reports of abuse among colleagues: a tendency to protect fellow clergy rather than the victims, mostly innocent children, as well as to operate in secrecy and blame the media for the negative attention rather than deal with the source of the problem.
For all the criticism The Jewish Week receives for allegedly paying too much attention to the problem of abusive rabbis preying on young people, the fact is there are so many incidents we never write about. We receive reports regularly of rabbis and educators who are said to be abusers, but in most cases the victims or their family members are unwilling to go on the record by speaking to us for attribution, for fear of being marginalized in their close-knit communities. The stigma includes worries about retribution from the perpetrator and, most commonly, of “hurting the shidduch” — disqualifying themselves or family members as suitable marriage partners by speaking out, a serious practical concern in these communities.
In some cases the alleged abuse happened years ago, beyond the statute of limitations.
Just recently our reporters have spoken to victims or family members who first approached us with complaints about teachers in yeshivas or tutors working with children, and then decided not to speak on the record after all.
We understand the difficulty of going public and the courage it takes to defy such strong communal norms. Unfortunately, though, these problems will continue until it is clear that such behavior will not go unreported and unpunished.
At the recent Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, the organization’s founder, Blu Greenberg, in addressing the largely futile four-decade history of efforts to solve the problem of agunot — women unable to receive a religious divorce from recalcitrant husbands — said she had come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that it was time to go to the general press with stories of women trapped in these loveless marriages. There are times, she said, when the very threat of such public exposure has prompted a husband finally to give his wife a get.
A sad truth, and surely the community would be deeply embarrassed by such exposure. But until that same community says “enough” and reaches the point when it no longer keeps quiet about abuse — be it a sexual predator or a callous husband — the situation will continue. And the press will be blamed for reporting on it.