Despite a New York judge’s recent condemnation of the practice, several national rabbinic leaders said they thought Orthodox rabbinic courts should continue to screen allegations of sexual abuse and decide whether they should be forwarded to law enforcement for prosecution.
“Sometimes, unfortunately, people make allegations which have no substance because they have an agenda,” said Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the organizing body of Modern Orthodox rabbis.
He said the rabbinic courts, or beit dins, are useful because they allow “for an investigation to see if there’s substance, and if there is, it’s immediately referred” to civil authorities.
David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, a leading umbrella group of ultra-traditional Orthodox organizations, agreed that religious courts can play a positive role in sexual-abuse cases.
“I think there are people in the community who are concerned about certain things that the secular authorities might not be concerned about,” Zweibel said. “If a child has to be removed from a family, if you are not sensitive to religious concerns of the family, they might be placed in a home setting that would not facilitate the child’s observance of religion.”
During the September 29 sentencing of a 31-year-old Orthodox bar mitzvah tutor convicted of sexually abusing two boys, New York State Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach lashed out at the Orthodox community for “a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator.” He termed the role played by such rabbinic courts in particular “inappropriate,” saying that these courts were “incapable” of dealing with criminal matters.
Reichbach’s statements come at a time when victims’ rights advocates say that at the grass-roots level, the Orthodox community’s attitude toward sexual abuse is changing rapidly. The volume of prosecutions in secular courts has grown dramatically, as Orthodox victims increasingly appear to be bypassing their rabbis.
An October 13 New York Times article reported that the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has brought 26 sexual abuse cases against members of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community in the past year, compared with previous years in which it has prosecuted only one or two cases. Of the 26 cases, involving yeshiva teachers, rabbis, camp counselors and others, eight have resulted in convictions and 18 others are awaiting trial.
Hynes has insisted that rabbinical courts should have no role in handling criminal cases. In a video interview with the ultra-Orthodox news service Vos Iz Neias, posted online June 11, Hynes said: “If a crime is to be committed in my county, I have primary and exclusive jurisdiction. I do not want to have interference from the beit din. You are not going to solve problems by keeping it away from me.”
Hynes’s position presents a challenge for some leaders of the Orthodox community, as victims and their family members often go first to their rabbis with reports of sexual abuse. Some rabbis immediately send victims to law enforcement, but others advocate different approaches.
Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, president of the Lakewood (N.J.) Community Service Corporation, said that a religious court investigating sexual assault is active in his community. The group includes rabbis alongside social workers, therapists and medical professionals, he said.
According to Weisberg, the beit din calls in law enforcement when the law requires it to, or when a victim asks it to. But, he said, “Sometimes the evidence is just not there, especially when you’re dealing with children.
“There are all kind of tools that are available to a community and a beit din that are not available to a judge. If there are enough reasonable facts that responsible people can make a reasonable decision that there might be something going on here, they can really lay it out to that person” by threatening to kick perpetrators out of their religious congregations and taking other measures.
“The last thing we would want to do is cover something up or put it under the carpet,” Weisberg said.
But Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach ruchani, or spiritual guidance counselor, at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, said he was keenly aware of the limitations a beit din faces in investigating sexual abuse. Blau served on a 1989 beit din that exonerated Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the charismatic leader of the Orthodox youth group NCSY, formerly known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. Lanner, who was also a high school principal, was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing two teenage girls. Rabbi Mordechai Willig, who also sat on that beit din, apologized later on behalf of that body for being too lenient in its treatment of Lanner.
“We didn’t have the tools to deal with it whatsoever,” Blau said of the Lanner case.
Blau said there are technical and legal issues that prevent a beit din from handling cases of sexual abuse adequately. Besides the rabbinical courts’ lack of investigative authority or ability to enforce their decisions, Blau pointed out that generally, under traditional Jewish law, neither women nor children under 13 are allowed to testify in front of a *beit din.
In the Lanner case, Blau said that the beit din decided to investigate incidents that had occurred only in the previous 10 years. That turned out to be a serious error, as it happens that older victims are generally more willing to come forward about abuse. “That was certainly not clear to us,” Blau said. “Therapists now [know better], but I don’t think the rabbis know much better. Rabbis are not trained to do this. This isn’t the kind of training they get in rabbinic school.”
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.