Thursday, May 28, 2009

Abuse Breeds Abuse

We have been treated to a torrent of articles alleging sexual abuse of children who attended Orthodox schools. The tone of the reporting is accusatory, with no heed paid to the actual record of these schools or to the norm that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. This may be justified, especially where abuse is claimed, because the presumption of innocence refers to legal processes and standards to determine guilt and not to whether the accused has clean hands. Wrongful behavior is wrong not because it is subject to criminal sanction but because it is contrary to values and practices that are essential in civil society.

Yet, it is unsettling that the appropriate efforts to root out abuse and protect children often resemble a crusade. Crusades bring an excess of emotion and fear and with emotion and fear there is the heightened prospect of distortion and false accusations. I quote once more Justice Brandeis’ chilling statement about the wages of fear. Referring to the Salem Witch trials, he wrote, “Men feared witches and burnt women.”

That there have been incidents of sexual abuse in all schools, including the Orthodox, cannot be denied. There is also sexual abuse in home situations and I suspect that it is more common and serious than what occurs in schools. Abuse must never be excused or covered up. When there is credible evidence of abuse – credible here means a lower degree of proof than may be required for other claims of wrongdoing – immediate steps must be taken, including removal of the wrongdoer from the school or home and the notification of public officials.

We read of an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in yeshivas and this is a lie and itself serious abuse and the debasement of truth is greater still when false charges are made by an Orthodox assemblyman or a faculty member at Yeshiva University. I am intensively involved in yeshiva and day school education and over the years I have asked persons involved in various schools whether there has been abuse at their institutions. Overwhelmingly they have answered that there hasn’t been and I believe them.

My view of abuse was powerfully influenced by the articles Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in the 1990s for the Wall Street Journal. She detailed how dozens of teachers, day care workers and religious personnel were falsely accused and harshly punished. There were suicides, lives were ruined, families shattered as the crusaders ran amok and unchallenged in Washington State, Massachusetts, New Jersey and elsewhere.

It is appropriate to ask why in the many articles alleging abuse no mention is made that this is a field where there have been a significant number of wrongful charges. Does anyone seriously believe that every abuse charge is truthful? Should we not be concerned when teachers or professionals are wrongfully accused and their families thereby suffer horrific and lasting pain? It is possible to strongly condemn abuse and still be alert to the reality that some charges are errant or false.

I write this on a day when the Times published a letter by a Holocaust historian who refers to the “fallibility of individual memory.” There is abundant research demonstrating that even shortly after events have occurred, witnesses distort, often inadvertently, what they have seen. As time goes on, the tendency to embellish or exaggerate is enhanced and this is certainly the case when individuals try to recount traumatic events that may have occurred a long time ago. To this issue is added the problematic status of what is referred to as repressed memory, meaning the capacity to recall many years later in adulthood events that the person was previously not aware of and which may have occurred during childhood.

Legislation pending in New York to open new windows of opportunity to report abuse many years later is ill-advised, despite the apparently good intentions of its authors. In an act of principle and courage, the Rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel have come out in opposition, highlighting the potential damage to institutions that can scarcely defend themselves against charges relating to events that may have occurred many years previously.

The Rabbis need to do more. They should declare that no matter what the circumstance, no part of a teacher’s body should come into contact with any part of a student’s body. Each school should schedule sensitivity sessions alerting faculty and staff to such restraints and also their responsibility to report when there are indications that a student has been abused at home. As I have suggested, I believe that home abuse is a more serious problem than what occurs at school.
There are those who will read these lines as a whitewashing of abuse, of downplaying the seriousness of wrongdoing when it does occur at schools. Without exception, when I have been asked to give guidance in abuse cases I have taken a strong position. My argument here is that any system of justice or moral code must strive to protect innocent people against false accusations. I should add that our society is awash in strong evidence that many individuals who were accused and convicted of murder – some even executed – were later proven to be innocent.

It is in the nature of a sin that it breeds additional sins. Abuse breeds additional abuse and this, too, is something that we should be concerned about.