A few months after the Forward published a searing essay by Sara Kabakov describing how Marc Gafni sexually abused her, Gafni asked to respond. The Forward believes it has a journalistic obligation to allow him to do so. But his essay demands analysis and context, so the Forward asked a number of experts in sexual abuse to analyze Gafni’s assertions. Those experts challenged Gafni’s claims that Kabakov consented to this relationship and that her age was not an issue, and questioned his reliance on polygraph tests. Their responses are published below Gafni’s essay.
Marc Gafni’s Response
Over the last year, I have been attacked in the press and on Internet blogs, falsely accused of everything from sexual harassment to plagiarism. My character and work have been demeaned. These attacks have unfolded as a series of articles reaching back to the end of 2015. I believe that these articles are the result of a highly orchestrated smear campaign.
I want to directly address a particular false story by Sara Kabakov that is being used in an attempt not only to destroy my reputation, but now has become the basis for a wider organized campaign to destroy the reputations of peers and colleagues.
The series of articles and blogs I’m referring to, particularly ones published in Jewish press, cite the alleged “molestation of Sara Kabakov, starting at age 13, by her former Rabbi and spiritual guru, Marc Gafni.” They present this claim as if it were an established and self-evident truth. It is not.
Marc Gafni Tells His Story — and Experts Respond
Speaking the truth about this story is not just crucial for me personally, it is also important for the evolution of public culture in the Internet age. Fact checking and fair process are at the core of democratic society. How we manage conflict tells us much about who we actually are as human beings and as a society.
Our culture must protect against all abuses of human rights and dignity. That includes racial and class-based abuse, sexual harassment and all forms of physical and emotional abuse. At the same time, we must be alert to all forms of defamation and cyberbullying in any form. Cyberbullying and false complaints create trauma, sometimes leading to suicide and always deface human dignity.
This response, which contains detailed refutations of the false and distorted claims being circulated about my actions and character, is the first in a series of articles I will be providing various media outlets who have published erroneous stories about me.
These issues have been extensively and directly addressed on the Facts page of my personal website. However, it now feels necessary to go one step farther.
Marc Gafni Tells His Story — and Experts Respond
What follows is my direct response to the assertions made by Sara Kabakov in her opinion piece published by the Forward on January 13, 2016. I am writing about this relationship for two important reasons. First, her story significantly distorts key details about our relationship. And secondly, as I mentioned above, her claims are being actively and intentionally used in some of the most malicious elements of the smear campaign against me.
Sara’s Forward article describes a highly distorted and often outright false narrative about our relationship from 36 years ago. In this article, Sara introduces herself as “the woman Gafni molested when she was 13 years old,”
At the time I met Sara, I was a 19-year-old boy. I was not a rabbinical student, as Sara stated in her essay. I was a college freshman, and not a rabbi, or the man who writes this response today. I have also never been a spiritual guru as Sara has labeled me. I was a teenager in a relationship with a younger teenager. Moreover, I was not then, nor am I now, a “child rapist,” “statutory rapist,” or a “pedophile,” as many have claimed through various media sources. These claims result from the ongoing recycling of falsehoods about this relationship 36 years ago.
I met Sara toward the beginning of her freshman year of high school. I was one year out of high school. Our relationship began some time later, in the early winter of 1980. Sara now says that she was 13 during the time of our relationship, but, according to what she told me then, she was 14 during the time of our relationship. Her 14th birthday was November 30. Our relationship began in December.
The first sentence of her article significantly disguises the fact that ours was a relationship between two teenagers. The portrait of me as a sexual predator is made much more credible when in her Forward article she is twice described as a 13-year old before mentioning my actual age at the time of our relationship.
Relatedly, Sara claims that when we met, “he offered to tutor me in Talmud,” a subtle distortion that sets up a formal authority relationship, which also strengthens the abuse narrative. Such a relationship never existed. It is true that we discussed the Talmud — I was an Orthodox yeshiva student, and discussing Talmud was what we did. But I was never her tutor in any sense.
Of critical importance is the fact that, 36 years ago, I hadn’t any awareness that her being a minor was an issue. We were 14 and 19 — teenagers, who had no knowledge of such things in New York, when, culturally, such topics were far less discussed than they are today. Indeed, either these words or this topic ever came up between us — not even once during the few months of our relationship. It was just not in our cultural awareness.
As a committed Orthodox boy, I was conflicted about my feelings versus following what I thought at the time was God’s law. I had strong feelings for Sara. And, at that time, she claimed to have the same feelings for me. What once was a mutual expression of teenage love has somehow, over the course of many decades, become, for Sara, a story of abuse. This is the heart of the matter.
In describing the start of our friendship, Sara states: “He proceeded to tell me how ‘special’ I was, and that he really liked me.” This is true. I was falling for her and we shared our feelings with each other directly. She then says that I suggested we “keep our friendship a secret,” and that I was “grooming [her] into being silent and fearful.” Nothing could be further from the truth of my recollection. Our friendship was not a secret, and I never suggested it be kept as such.
It’s true that, as Sara states, I stayed at her house on Shabbat, with her parents’ permission and their full knowledge. I also stayed over many times during the week, which she does not mention. Their house was like a second home for me, and I had a good relationship with her parents. Again, there was nothing secret about the fact that we were close friends or that we spent a lot of time together. We never shared that we were dating — but not because I asked Sara to keep a secret. We naturally did not share it with parents, as is the case in many teenage relationships.
So, as others have asked, was this relationship one of teenage love or abuse? I recognize that even for open-minded readers — that is, anyone who hasn’t already assumed that the story told by Sara, or the organizers of the larger smear campaign is true — this question is impossible to answer definitely. There are two opposing narratives, and there is no easy way to directly establish the veracity of either. This is why, a decade ago, the last time Sara’s claims were used to mischaracterize me, I did the only thing I could do to demonstrate that the story I am telling here is not a lie.
I took a polygraph — the results of which are available online — to affirm my claims. It was completed by Gordon H. Barland, PhD, the former director of polygraph research for the Department of Defense. I answered five questions about aspects of my relationship with Sara and the nature of our physical contact, which was nothing greater than teenage necking. The polygraph contained two questions about our mutually positive experience at the time, and three questions regarding the nature of our physical contact. No deception was indicated for my answers to all five questions. In fact, Dr. Barland assessed the probability of deception at less than .01. He concluded that I had answered each question truthfully.
Orthodox law and practice prohibits all physical contact before marriage, including even holding hands. In her article, Sara correctly says that each time we had physical contact, I would express deep remorse through an act of Teshuvah (repentance), because I knew that such contact was in violation of Jewish Orthodox law. This is true. I spoke to the man who had been my rabbi in high school the year before, and he affirmed the “absolute biblical prohibition, according to Maimonides, of any physical contact between unmarried people.” At 19, I did not know how to resolve the contradiction between our very limited contact and what I was being taught was immutable divine law.
Despite distorted details as to why Sara and I broke up according to Sara’s account, I broke up with Sara because I was committed to Orthodox law and practice which prohibited any physical contact, even holding hands, before marriage. I was internally tortured to be out of integrity with Orthodox law. As a 19-year-old Orthodox Jew, I understood this law as a direct divine obligation, one which I had transgressed. Decades later I realize that my shame at not having been able to fulfill the law must have been devastating to Sara as well. I deeply regret this.
We broke up and Sara later wrote me a beautiful love letter, which arrived about six months after the breakup. It looked tattered and was covered in postmarks and other stamps, like it took several attempts before it was finally delivered. Sara’s letter said that we were each other’s one true love, spoke of the depth of our love, that we were intended for each other, and that it would be tragic for us not to spend our lives together. I cried for what felt like two hours after reading it. I was devastated, and I can still remember my sadness.
I called her immediately. The call was answered but she would not come to the phone. In that moment, I wondered if she thought I had ignored her letter, which very well may have arrived months after she wrote it.
In other publications, Sara has denied sending this letter. In the polygraph mentioned earlier, two questions directly concerned the letter and its contents. “After your relationship with Sara was over, did she write you that you were her one true love?” and “After your relationship with Sara was over, did she write that you were meant to be together forever?” I answered both questions as “yes,” and no deception was indicated. Again, Dr. Barland concluded that I had answered truthfully.
We are left with two very different stories about our relationship, and I am left with a very difficult question: When and how did her story shift from teenage romance to one of abuse? It pains me greatly to even write this essay, but the current smear campaign has so heavily relied on her allegations that I am left with little choice but to reflect on this at a deeper level.
In retrospect, I deeply regret my involvement with Sara. I take full responsibility for my role in this youthful mistake. I apologize with all my heart for any pain I may have caused her in our youthful relationship.
As always, I stand against any form of sexual harassment or abuse. Sexual abuse, like all abuses of power, is a pervasive problem. I stand against all practices and behaviors that seek to shame victims who chose to speak out. In speaking out, I have no intention to shame Sara. My intent here has been to respond to allegations made against me — as is my right as a human being. Twenty years of this tale has had profoundly damaging and traumatic effects on my life, on my children’s lives, and on the lives of my partners and friends. Sara cannot hide from this truth nor her own profound responsibility in perpetrating gross and horrifically damaging falsehoods, by claiming that she is being subjected to victim shaming.
Wrongful accusations, leveled by an individual or by a group, in a trial-by-Internet atmosphere are regressive. I propose another vision. I will conclude with my dream, which I hope is not an impossible dream: What if the result of this campaign was the seeking of a higher clarification? What if, over time, all the parties, with all their narratives, could sit together, compare facts, talk, and seek genuine truth and reconciliation?
Jane Eisner on Why the Forward Published This Essay and How Experts Respond
The decision to publish this response from Marc Gafni was difficult, and unusual. One expert I spoke to said that she had never seen someone accused of sexual abuse try to explain himself in this way.
In her essay, published earlier this year, Sara Kabakov alleged that she was 13 years old when Gafni, then a 19-year-old rabbinical student, sexually abused her in her bed at night while he visited her family over a period of months. This was the first time she had spoken publicly about this experience, but her story had emerged anonymously over the years (here and here) in which she alleged that he forced her to have sexual contact against her will.
When some months later, through a spokesman, Gafni offered this response, I felt a journalistic imperative to accept. But I did not want to present his defense without context, so I contacted a number of experts in sexual abuse, shared with them Kabakov’s essay (which contained her allegations) and Gafni’s statement (which contained his response), and asked for their analysis. Here are their salient points:
Of critical importance is the fact that, 36 years ago, I hadn’t any awareness that her being a minor was an issue. We were 14 and 19 — teenagers, who had no knowledge of such things..
The experts said that whether Kabakov was 13 years old or 14 years old when she alleged that he began molesting her is legally irrelevant — theirs would not be considered a consenting relationship in most states, including New York, where it took place. The age of consent in New York was raised from 10 to 16 in 1890, to 18 in 1920 and then down to 17 in 1999. Currently in the United States, there is no state with a consensual age below 16.
If the statute of limitations had not long ago expired, if a man who was 19 touched a girl of 14 in certain ways, it could be a criminal offense, Alissa Ackerman, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington at Takoma, told me. And, she noted, “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.”
Beyond the legal question is a developmental one. Even “if they were 14 and 19, how could he not understand how underdeveloped the 14-year-old’s brain is?” Wendy Murphy, a litigator and adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law in Boston, wrote in an email.
Nineteen-year-olds “are not merely five years older, the way a 50-year-old is merely five years younger than a 55-year-old. [They] are light years older than 14-year-olds in terms of maturity and sophistication. He nowhere acknowledges this important fact,” she added. This is why “teenage girls comprise the largest groups of sexual assault victims because they are by far the most vulnerable.”
Joan Tabachnick, an expert in sexual abuse prevention who is currently a fellow with the Department of Justice SMART office, expressed similar concerns. “As someone who is a leader in his community, he does not acknowledge the developmental differences between a 19-year-old and a 13 or 14-year-old, minimizing the potential impact that this could have on a young girl,” she wrote in an email.
I took a polygraph — the results of which are available online — to affirm my claims… No deception was indicated for my answers to all five questions.
It’s important here to say that polygraph tests are not admissible in a court of law because they are easily manipulated, Ackerman said. Murphy agreed: “In my experience, it is very easy to falsely ‘pass’ a polygraph.”
I did my own research that put the test results in a different light. Gafni was asked three questions about whether he performed sex acts with Kabakov — sexual intercourse, masturbation and anal and oral sex — and was found truthful in his denials. But in her Forward essay, Kabakov never alleged that she and Gafni did any of those things. They were the wrong questions to ask.
He also answered two questions about the “love letter” he said he received from her. But since the letter was decades old and could not be found, the test examiner tried to dissuade Gafni from including those questions in the first place. “I told him that this was a poor issue for a polygraph,” the examiner wrote, and then added: “testing on the contents of a letter received nearly 30 years ago is inappropriate because memory is easily modified over time — often significantly.”
We are left with two very different stories about our relationship, and I am left with a very difficult question: When and how did her story shift from teenage romance to one of abuse?
Ackerman noted that Gafni may really believe that what happened was mutual and consensual, because she has seen such justifications before in more than a decade of research in this area.
“He may very well believe that he was not doing anything wrong. That’s still not an excuse and it doesn’t negate the fact that the survivor felt traumatized,” she told me. “What he wrote doesn’t surprise me at all. He has done what anyone accused of such an offense would do. The fact that he did it in such a blatant way — I’ve never seen that. It is rare for someone to offer such a public and detailed argument to persuade others about his role in a case.”