Friday, November 14, 2008

Jewish Journalism and Sexual Abuse

The opening words of the lead editorial two weeks ago in this newspaper declared, “We do not believe that there is more incidence of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community than there is among other denominations or groupings of Jews.” Reassuring words, perhaps. Then comes the next sentence which states as fact and not just belief, “But among the Orthodox, such cases tend to be underreported to the authorities.”

It is difficult to write about sexual abuse. The topic evokes strong emotions. Those who are accused, whether by prosecutors or in the media, are presumed guilty. There is a strong prospect that my words will be misunderstood, even distorted.

This is what I believe: Sexual abuse is sinful and criminal and when children are the victims, the crime is heinous because of the scars that remain. Those who cover-up are guilty of a grave sin, even if they do so out of motives that they regard as just, because there is the likelihood that covering up will result in additional victims.

Those who are accused must be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, yet because of the risks involved and the high obligation to protect children, when credible charges are made, it is incumbent to remove the accused from the classroom or other settings that result in on-going contact with children. This holds true even if the accused is never formally charged. Furthermore, schools and other places where children are supervised by adults must instruct faculty and staff that all physical contact with children, except for medical purposes, is absolutely forbidden, whether the contact is intended to punish or encourage the child or for any other purpose. This unfortunately means that to avoid suspicion of untoward conduct, spontaneous acts of encouragement and appreciation would not be permitted.

The Orthodox are part of the real world and there are credible cases of sexual abuse of children, as well as times when the wrongdoing has been covered up. This must be acknowledged, as must the truth that there have been charges that have not held up. We must pay heed to the too many instances of trumped up accusations of sexual child abuse of children documented years ago by Dorothy Rabinowitz in her many Wall Street Journal articles. Dozens were falsely accused and many innocent people were convicted. Lives were ruined, families destroyed. There were suicides. These, too, were victims and their pain must not be shoved aside in the understandable determination to protect children.

There is the additional question of the reliability of memory, especially when charges are made years later. Scholars have debated the issue of repressed memory. In short, children must be protected, as must the innocent, and this requires a challenging balancing act.

I faced the issue of reliability in mid-September when, as often happens, a family seeking admission of their child to a Jewish high school contacted me. He had been rejected and although the odds of success were slim, I said that I would call the principal. I did and the results were as expected. When I relayed this to the parents, their immediate angry response was that they would now go to the authorities and charge that their son was sexually abused at a different school last year.

Accuracy is not the only factor in determining whether sexual abuse reportage adheres to journalistic standards. As I wrote years ago, even if every negative story about an ethnic group is accurate, the coverage may be biased. If a newspaper publishes an article each day about a violent crime committed by a Black person, the cumulative impact would be bigoted journalism because the message conveyed would be that this is representative of all Blacks. The same is true of stories regarding Orthodox abuse, particularly when each story dredges up what had previously been published.

If this newspaper believes that there isn’t a higher incidence of Orthodox abuse, how to explain why perhaps 98% of the space devoted to allegations of abuse of children concern the Orthodox? You can’t have it both ways. Perhaps more importantly, the newspaper cannot focus on alleged Orthodox abuse and then claim that the tendency among the Orthodox is to cover-up. To put the issue otherwise, if 1) the incidence of abuse is as great among the non-Orthodox and 2) there are few newspaper stories and cases involving the non-Orthodox, then 3), doesn’t this amount to a cover-up of abuse among the non-Orthodox?

My assessment is that there is a greater tendency these days to report abuse among the Orthodox because unlike most other American Jews and Americans they are not just faces in the huge crowd of American society. There are entry points in Orthodox life for those who feel that abuse has occurred. There are visible and vocal professionals and others who now constantly beat the drums on the subject.

These include Assemblyman Dov Hikind. In a letter published last week in this newspaper, he wrote, referring to the Orthodox, that “I firmly believe that there are likely thousands of people who are affected by sexual abuse in some form or another” and that “the total number of cases of rabbinic sexual abuse in our community is closer to ‘hundreds’ of individuals.”

A community leader told me that Hikind is guilty of “a blood libel.” If his statistics are accurate, given the tiny size of our community compared to the Catholic Church, the only possible conclusion is that our rabbis are out-abusing priests by a large margin. With all of the information that he claims to have, why aren’t there many more stories? Why aren’t there many more prosecutions? Has he gone to the authorities? If he hasn’t, he is being irresponsible.

The more important point is this: Sexual abuse is an awful crime. The subject requires vigilance and, at times, courage and not bogus numbers and biased journalism.