In an article published in The Forward on May 2nd, Barbara Finkelstein painted a very optimistic picture of the shifting landscape in the Charedi world concerning child sexual abuse policies. In that article, she claimed that “Virtually no mainstream religious Jewish organization or sect publicly insists anymore that victims speak to their rabbi before going to the police.” As proof she cited the grassroots efforts of rabbis from Chabad, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Yeshiva University, and the Rabbinical Council of America.
While it is true that progress has been made over the past 5 years in regards to sexual abuse awareness and prevention, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Of course, Finklestein might argue that it depends on how you define ‘mainstream religious Jewish organizations.
Arguably, Agudath Israel of America is a mainstream religious Jewish organization. It’s constituent organizations and demographic include large swaths of the Charedi, Litvish, and Yeshivish populations in North America. The official policy of Agudah, as of writing this, is still that a rabbi must be consulted before any abuse allegation can be brought to the authorities.
Presumably, the hundreds of different sects of Chassidim living in New York qualify as mainstream Jewish organizations, and yet there has been no public change in policy from any of them toward advocating reporting abuse directly to the authorities.
While it is admirable that some Charedi sects, particularly those under Agudah’s umbrella are pouring resources into prevention and training, the fact remains that they do not advocate going immediately to the authorities in cases of sexual abuse. In fact, it could be argued that their overemphasis on prevention, while certainly beneficial, is designed to shield them from public scrutiny and criticism, especially since a majority of their preventative curricula and protocols are focused on preventing abuse in institutions, while a majority of abuse happens outside of institutions, and is perpetrated, in a majority of cases, by someone the victim knows.
While Agudah’s preventative measures may reduce, and hopefully eliminate abuse in institutions, their policies still do nothing to prevent abuse by family members, family acquaintances, tutors, or other people known to the victim outside of institutional settings, and, in fact, enable these other forms of abuse, because while the preventative curricula do, in fact, cover potential intrafamilial abuse, the psychological dynamics inherent in intrafamilial abuse are such that even the most well educated child is susceptible.
Home settings cannot be controlled the same way institutional settings are. You can’t have cameras in every room. You can’t have glass in every door. You can’t always have a buddy system. You certainly can’t implement policies which mandate that a student and teacher are never alone and unobservable. Abuse will happen in the home, and other non-institutional settings. Siblings will abuse their siblings. Parents will abuse their children. Trusted family acquaintances will abuse children they know. Rabbinical authorities will abuse the children of adults who trust them. Abuse happens everywhere, and the only tool we have to fight it, other than preventative education, is the ability to report it once it happens.
By implying that the problem is next to solved, Finklestein does a dangerous disservice to victims by providing a shield behind which institutions can hide when faced with claims of apathy and obstruction concerning child sexual abuse. If there’s one way to ensure that the fantasy espoused in her article never comes true, it is by issuing unearned participation trophies to organizations that hide behind the illusion of change to perpetuate harmful policies.