Agudath Israel: Abuse Claims Go to Rabbis

Leaders Say Parents, Teachers Should Delay Reporting to Police

Obligation To Report? Agudath Israel says Orthodox Jews should take allegations of child sex abuse to rabbis before reporting them to police. The position puts it on a collision course with authorities like Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who is being scrutinized for his handling of abuse cases.
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Obligation To Report? Agudath Israel says Orthodox Jews should take allegations of child sex abuse to rabbis before reporting them to police. The position puts it on a collision course with authorities like Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who is being scrutinized for his handling of abuse cases.

By Paul Berger

Published May 23, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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An Orthodox parent whose child tells him he’s been sexually abused may not take that child’s claim to the police without first getting religious sanction from a specially trained rabbi, the head of America’s leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group has told the Forward.

But one year after acknowledging that no such registry of trained rabbis exists, Rabbi David Zwiebel said that his group has now dropped the idea of developing one.

One of the main reasons, said Zwiebel, was a warning from Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes — issued only a few days earlier — that rabbis who prevent families from going to police could be arrested.

“If they [rabbis] don’t give the right advice, they can be in trouble,” said Zwiebel. “Why would you want to create some sort of a list that would make them more vulnerable?”

Zwiebel, who is the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said that despite the absence of such a registry, his group would staunchly resist increased public pressure to lift its requirement that parents obtain rabbinic permission.

“We’re not going to compromise our essence and our integrity because we are nervous about a relationship that may be damaged with a government leader,” he said.

Zwiebel’s comments, offered over the course of an hour-long interview in the Aguda’s Manhattan headquarters on May 21, highlighted a growing fissure that has opened between the Aguda and previously friendly senior public officials in New York. The break comes in the wake of a New York Times exposé that chronicled intimidation of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn by their own communities to keep them from bypassing rabbinic authorities and reporting abuse. The Times’ two articles, and a flood of media stories that followed, also reported how Hynes appeared to accommodate rather than challenge the ground rules set down by ultra-Orthodox leaders asserting their authority over such cases.

The Times reports followed years of earlier reporting by the Forward, New York’s Jewish Week and other outlets on the issue. In some cases, alleged victims or their parents who went to local rabbis to report abuse were told to keep quiet or suffer severe consequences, or even admonished for raising such charges.

But in the wake of the high-profile attention the Times’ reports generated, even the Brooklyn DA has now forcefully shifted his earlier stance.

In a May 17 interview with NY1, Hynes said rabbis “had no authority” to screen cases of abuse. He said that he told Zwiebel during a meeting last year, “As soon as there’s a complaint of sexual abuse, I expect my office to be… contacted immediately.”

“There was never, ever a suggestion by me that rabbis should filter cases,” Hynes said. He added that a rabbi who dissuades someone from reporting abuse could “end up in handcuffs” if the case turned out to be credible.

In his interview with the Forward, Zwiebel recalled the June 2011 meeting differently. Zwiebel said that when he outlined Agudath Israel’s policy to Hynes, the district attorney did not find anything about the rabbinic consultation process that was “inconsistent with the standards of secular law.”

Indeed, a few days after his NY1 interview, Hynes himself appeared to backtrack. In a May 20 interview on WABC radio, the DA admitted that if a rabbi counsels an ultra-Orthodox Jew not to report abuse but does not threaten that person, “there is nothing I can do about that.”


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