As chief-editor of a news website I commend you for courageously addressing one of the worst curses plaguing our community: child abuse.
I receive many submissions exposing child molesters and various forms of abuse in our communities. I would like you to discuss the issue of publicizing this information. On one hand, many argue that we are prohibited from “loshon hora,” speaking ill of others, even if it may be true. On the other hand how can any responsible person ignore the issue that has such devastating effects and just “push it under the rug”?
Please reply. Your response will not only be appreciated, but will guide us in setting policy what to post and what not to post on our public site.
I believe that you have the power to spearhead a major campaign, headed by real Rabbis and activists, to address this issue for the benefit of the larger community. The gravity of abuse and its terrible consequences requires that we do nothing less than wake up, shake up and turn the community upside down.
I am willing to dedicate to this discussion as much space as necessary on our site. Please let’s push and help our kinderlech (children)…
Thank you for your supporting words and confidence. I am not really sure whether I can live up to your expectations to spearhead any major effort, but I can try adding my small contribution to this vital topic.
The only reason I have for the last few weeks been writing about abuse is precisely due to its far-reaching and devastating effects on so many lives. And not just for now, but for generations to come. Everything we build and teach our children, all our investments and dedication to good, all our moral standards, our entire education system, can be wiped out in one fell swoop when we or our children are violated.
I have been trained in the Torah way of thinking that any question we have must be framed in objective context, and weighed by various moral criteria that help us achieve some clarity. This is especially true for controversial and emotionally charged issues, due to their subjective effect on all of us – fear, anger, vengeance, shock, disbelief, and all the other complex feelings evoked by abuse.
The first of all ethical and Torah axioms must be stated at the outset: No one has a right to in any way violate in any way the body or soul of another human being. Indeed, we don’t even have the right to mutilate our own bodies, because your body does not belong to you; it is “Divine property.” Let alone someone else’s property. No crime is worse that assaulting another’s dignity – which is compared to the dignity of G-d Himself, being that every person was created in the Divine Image. Even a hanged murderer must not be defiled and his body not left to hang overnight because it reflects the Divine Image. How much more so – infinitely more so – regarding a live person and innocent child…
Abuse, in any form or shape, physical, psychological, verbal, emotional or sexual, is above all a violent crime – a terrible crime. Abusing another (even if it’s intangible) is no different than taking a weapon and beating someone to a pulp. And because of its terrible long-term effects, the crime is that much worse.
What do we do with violent criminals? We punish them. Once it has been determined that abuse was perpetrated, there should be consequences, both for the perpetrator and as a deterrent to other potential violators. The actual consequences need to be determined by local legal and Torah standards by the authorities on location. If for any reason the Torah authorities cannot deal with the situation, the only recourse is the same one employ for murderers, thieves and other criminals: legal action.
The next question is this: What are our obligations as parents, teachers, writers, website editors, or just plain adult citizens, when it comes to abuse?
On one hand we are talking about protecting innocent people from criminal predators, which clearly is a major obligation and priority concern. On the other hand, we do have laws prohibiting embarrassing people (even criminals) in public, always hopeful, allowing people to correct their ways. We have laws about avoiding gossip and speaking ill about others (loshon hora), and not feeding into the base instinct of “talking about others” or “mob mentality” witch-hunting expeditions.
We have several obligations when we see or know about a crime, as well as obligations to prevent further crimes:
1) A witness to a crime who does not testify “must bear his guilt” (Leviticus 5:1).
2) “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), which includes the obligation to warn someone from a danger we are aware of. If you see someone walking down the street and you know that further down the block there is an uncovered pit in the ground or a man with a gun, you are obligated to warn him.
If we are aware of a predator we must do everything possible to protect people from him.
3) “Do not stand still over your neighbor’s blood (when your neighbor’s life is in danger)” (Leviticus 19:16). It’s interesting to note that this commandment follows (in the same verse) “do not go around as a gossiper among your people,” suggesting that gossip is an issue only when no life is in danger. But if a life is in danger then “do not stand still” even if means speaking about it in public.
4) “You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (ibid 17).
If one does not admonish, then he is responsible for the other’s sin (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive 205; see Shabbat 54b. 119b). Though at the outset rebuke must be done “in private, kindly and gently,” not to embarrass him publicly (Arkhin 16b; Sefer HaMitzvoth, Negative 305), but if it doesn’t help, the obligation is to admonish him in pubic (Rambam Deos 6:8. Shulchan Aruch HaRav Hilchos Onaah v’Gneivas Daas 30).
This is true even about a crime that does not affect other people. All the care taken about public shame is because the crime does not affect the public. And even then, there are situations where the admonishment must be done publicly. By contrast, in our discussion about abuse, which affects others, all these restrictions do not apply: Embarrassment of a criminal is never an excuse a reason to put anyone else in potential danger.
Based on the above, I would submit that the following criteria to determine whether to publish and publicize the name of a molester:
1) The abuse must be established without a shred of doubt. Because just as we must protect the potential victims of abuse, we also are obligated to protect the reputations of the innocent, and not wrongly accuse anyone without evidence or witnesses.
2) Publicizing the fact will serve as a deterrent or even possible deterrent of further crimes, or will warn and protect possible future victims. If that is true, than “loshon hora” (speaking ill about someone) does not apply. It would be the equivalent of saying that it is “loshan hora” to warn someone of a weapon-wielding criminal who may cause harm!
If however publicity will not serve any benefit to the public, then there would be no reason to mention an individual’s name. For instance, if abuse took place years ago, and the crime has recently surfaced, unless publicizing the name could potentially protect future incidents, what point would there be to exposing the identity of the abuser? He may even have done teshuvah and been rehabilitated.
Even if he caused great damage to those he abused, and his victims want to get even and publicize his name, that alone may not be enough reason, unless it may help prevent future abuse. What may require further research is whether public shame in this instance is a legitimate form of punishment. This also touches upon the laws of forgiveness, which include the exception that one need not forgive if the perpetrator still needs to be humbled or if in the process the victim is being hurt.
3) Even if a name is not publicized, the issue of abuse itself must be addressed for the same reasons stated: To make the public aware of the dangers, to protect innocent children.
The argument that publicity will give the community a “bad name” and “why wash our dirty laundry in public?” does not supersede the obligation to protect the innocent from being hurt.
Anyone who suggests that abuse must be overlooked, because (as one person told me) it “happens all the time” and “by many people, including our leaders,” or for any other reasons – is not different than ignoring any other crime, and is in itself a grave crime.
One could even argue, that the greatest “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying G-d’s name) is when a Torah based community demonstrates that it doesn’t just mechanically follow the laws or isn’t merely concerned with reputations and shidduchim, but that it sets and demands the highest standard of accountability amongst its citizens, and invest the greatest possible measures to protect its children from predators, create trust and absolutely will not tolerate any breach or abuse. That the greatest sin of all is ignoring or minimizing crimes being perpetrated against our most innocent and vulnerable members: our children.
In conclusion: The bottom line in all matters regarding abuse is one and only one thing: Protecting the innocent. Not the reputation of an individual, not the reputation of the community, not anything but the welfare of our children. In every given case, whether to publicize or not, whether to take any other action or not, the question that must be asked is this: What is best for the potential victims? Will or can this action help prevent someone from being hurt or not? If the answer is yes or even maybe yes, then the action should be taken.
Obviously, this has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, due to the different nuances in every given situation. And of course, there will be instances when there are exceptions due to unique circumstances. Therefore, it is vital that competent, sensitive and educated authorities be consulted when a question arises.
My writing is not meant to serve as a “psak halacha,” a legal ruling. Rather, simply an attempt to frame the issues in terms that can help us discuss the issues and come away with some measure of clarity.
Legal rulings require more in-depth review and analysis by experts, preferably by more than one, to establish a consensus.
But one thing is clear: The crisis has reached a boiling point where is must be addressed and brought to the attention of the public, if nothing else, to make everyone aware of the dangers, the long-term consequences and the zero-tolerance policy that needs to be applied to every form of abuse.
Anything less would be irresponsible, immoral, and, yes, is some way complicit.
* * *
This week’s Haftorah, the fourth of the seven weeks of comfort, accelerates the healing process from all forms of abuse against our children. It describes how G-d Himself – I, I (anochi, anochi) – comforts His people.
I, I am He who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mortal men, and the son of man, who will be made like grass. And have forgotten G-d, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; so that you are constantly afraid of the oppressor’s fury as he prepares to destroy? And where is the oppressor’s fury?
Despite the impeccable logic, that we should not fear mere mortals in the face of a formidable G-d, the fact remains that we do fear them. As Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told his students at his deathbed:
“May you fear G-d as much as you fear man.”
Oh, how life would be different if we did not fear, and could not be hurt by, people of flesh and blood. If we could only transcend the oppressor’s fury.
Yet, despite our short-sightedness, the Haftorah comforts us with the knowledge that our fears are unfounded and unnecessary. By meditating on the extreme contrast between transient oppressors and an immortal G-d, that very awareness can help lift us to a greater place, which cushions, if not immunizes us against, the harsher impact of abuse.
Ask people who have learned to heal from their wounds and virtually every one of them will tell you that a major step – indeed, the first of the twelve steps – toward healing consisted of recognizing that you, the human, are powerless. You must surrender to a Higher force, to G-d, and recognize that G-d protects us against predators. As long as you hold on to the illusion – one that holds us trapped in its iron-clad tentacles – of earthly power (“one world and many gods”), you remain a victim to your own beliefs. When you discover that there is “only one G-d but many worlds,” you become free of the fear of losing one world, because there is always another that can fill its place.
I have put My words in your mouth, and covered you in the shadow of My hand, planting the heavens, laying the earth’s foundation, and saying to Zion: ‘You are My people.’
But this discovery does not come without a price. Often we need to hit rock bottom before we awake. To achieve this level of cognizance requires a wake up call.
Awake, awake, stand up, Jerusalem! You have drunk from G-d’s hand the cup of His fury. You have drunk and drained the cup of the bowl of staggering.
Of all the sons she has borne, there is no one to guide her; nor is there any, of all the sons she brought up, who takes her by the hand. Your sons fainted; they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net. They are full of G-d’s fury, the rebuke of your Lord.
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion. Shake yourself from the dust, arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem. Free yourself from the bonds around your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
Depart, depart, go out from there, touch no unclean thing. Go out from her midst, purify yourselves, you bearers of G-d’s vessels.
Your sons fainted… Captive daughter…
It is quite unnerving to read the Haftorah with child abuse in mind and see its uncanny relevance (I didn’t even quote the rawer verses).
But above all is the overriding message of deep hope:
I, I am He who comforts you. I, who planted the heavens, laid the earth’s foundation, say to you: ‘You are My people.’