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November 15, 2011 11:47 pm

Crown Heights Cracking Down on Sexual Abuse

avatar by Eliyahu Federman

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Photo: Mike Knapek.

In the past four months the Crown Heights Jewish Community has seen as many sexual abuse-related arrests and reports as there have been in the past 20 years. A Crown Heights victims’ advocacy group called CH Watch has documented at least four arrests in the past four months. What has lead to this drastic upsurge in reporting child sexual abuse? What was the game changer that turned the tide, leaving the offenders running for cover and the victims openly speaking to the police? In a courageous move on July 11, 2011, the Crown Heights Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) issued a public letter requiring its members to report credible claims of sexual abuse to the police.

Other rabbinical authorities have also encouraged their members to go the police, but what was unique here is the fact that the Crown Heights Beit Din made the matter public and not only allowed its members to report directly to the police, but required it.

The Beit Din’s letter stated that Jewish law requires reporting credible claims of sexual abuse to the authorities. It went on to reiterate that Jewish laws written to stop Jewish individuals from informing to the police and taking other Jews to secular court do not apply in the context of sexual abuse. This is because the potential offender is classified as a threat that is endangering the lives of the innocent.

Since the Beit Din’s letter was released there have been at least four arrests of Crown Heights residents and rabbis accused of child sexual abuse. That number is staggering considering that in the last 20 years the Crown Heights Jewish community has seen few if any arrests related to child sexual abuse. And it’s not because sexual abuse did not exist – national surveys estimate that 25 percent of children in the US are victims of sexual abuse. It’s because child sexual abuse previously went unreported.

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Some select Orthodox organizations advise members to seek a rabbi’s permission before reporting abuse to the authorities. Needing a rabbi’s permission before reporting abuse to the authorities leads to countless victims suffering in silence and zero accountability and deterrence for perpetrators. Social workers, child-care providers, teachers, counselors and others are legally bound to report abuse. Encouraging them not to may also constitute obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

When rabbis serve as gatekeepers to the police, they may also discourage victims from reporting sexual abuse in an effort to avoid chilul hashem (desecration of God’s name), that is, giving a bad name to the community. The Crown Heights Beit Din’s letter is an unequivocal statement that sexual abuse victims should not need a rabbi’s permission to report abuse to the authorities and that the value of human life supersedes claims of chilul hashem.

The impact of the Crown Heights Beit Din’s letter is monumental. As a result, the culture of silence has changed dramatically over the last few months. A Rabbinical Court requiring victims to report sexual abuse to the secular authorities is a heartening sign of progress in an otherwise seemingly insular community. This step forward should be highlighted in an effort to pressure other rabbinical courts to follow suit. Victims should not have to suffer in silence. As a closely connected community, we must also be aware that a sexual abuse accusation from one community member against another should not lead to cyberspace lynch-mobs, vigilantism, or “guilty until proven innocent” group-think mentality. Let the system play it out.

The bottom line is that the recent arrests and exposure of several alleged predators in Crown Heights would have never occurred without the Beit Din’s letter encouraging victims to report abuse. We are seeing a major sign of progress – with the Crown Heights Beit Din at the vanguard.

The hope is that communities elsewhere can replicate this example.

The writer is a graduate of the City University of New York School of Law, where he served as an executive editor of the law review. He has advocated for gender equality in voting rights, sexual abuse awareness and better police-community relations in Crown Heights.

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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