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Rabbis Aren’t Always the Enemy

Not the Answer: Forcing rabbis to report sex abuse allegations, as Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes wants, may intimidate families into staying quiet. Image by shulamit seidler-feller

All competent rabbinic authorities are in agreement that cases of sexual abuse should be reported to law enforcement. Agudath Israel of America nevertheless requires parents to obtain rabbinic permission before reporting abuse to authorities. Although in the overwhelming majority of cases, abuse allegations turn out to be accurate, there has been a minority of cases in which innocent individuals were wrongly charged with abuse crimes. These individuals were vindicated only after lengthy proceedings. Therefore, some rabbis feel that in a case where there are no witnesses to the abuse and there is only one victim, who is a minor, a rabbi should assess the validity of the allegations before the accusations are brought to the police.

Personally, I don’t feel victims or their parents are required under Jewish law to ask for rabbinic permission before reporting sexual abuse to authorities, even though, in all likelihood, the rabbis will instruct the victims to pursue charges. I do believe, however, that having a rabbinic authority involved may end up benefitting the victim and helping ease the stigma and trauma that comes with a publicized trial.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s recent move to have a new state law enacted that would compel rabbis to report child sex abuse allegations to authorities is a miscalculation and a mistake. As the law currently stands, victims and their families have the ability to seek the advice of a rabbi with confidence that their allegations will not be disclosed. Parents of victims are often terrified of the psychological effect a public trial would have on victims and their families. Victims often go to the rabbi for support, afraid to report the abuse directly to the authorities, afraid of being intimidated or impugning the reputation of an otherwise-respected member of the community, and afraid that public knowledge will hurt their chances of finding a suitable bride or groom in their community. It is in such cases that the rabbis play an invaluable part; they are often able to persuade a reluctant victim to come forward and testify. To paraphrase what one rabbi told a victim: “I do not say that you may report this crime to the police, I say you must report it to the police.”

It is my opinion that far fewer victims will come forward if they know that the rabbi is required to report their allegations to the authorities.

I strongly believe that only a small minority of rabbis advises against reporting to the police. And in today’s day and age, the number of victims who come forward because of rabbinic and community support is much greater than the number of victims who are advised by their rabbis to remain silent.

If Hynes is successful with his legislation, victims who are struggling with shame and uncertain as to whether to pursue charges have nowhere to go for emotional support. And they may end up keeping the information secret altogether.

Yaacov Behrman is the director of media relations for Chabad Lubavitch News Service. The views expressed above are his own.

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