Thursday, December 19, 2002

The Victims' Lament - Sexual abuse in the community is all too

The Victims' Lament - Sexual abuse in the community is all too 
By Faygie Levy, Jewish Exponent Staff
Jewish Exponent - December 19, 2002

(NAME REMOVED) was 11 years old when it happened.   

A student at the Chisuk Emuna Congregation's Hebrew school in Harrisburg, she had lagged behind her classmates during a break between lessons. That's when she says the synagogue's cantor, Philip Wittlin, "came up behind me and did that gross old-man thing."

(Name Removed) defines that behavior as Wittlin touching her breasts, one time, during that afternoon a decade ago. In August 2001, about a month after Wittlin was arrested for abusing minors, (Name Removed) approached the district attorney in Dauphin County, where she grew up and where her family still resides, and recounted the incident.

At 21, (Name Removed) is still troubled by the encounter, saying, "I have a big problems trusting men."

She is not alone.

Today, you can't pick up a newspaper or turn on a television station without hearing about the latest sexual-abuse claim within the Catholic Church. Although the known number of cases of child sexual abuse by cantors and rabbis is presumed to be nowhere near that of priests and other clergymen right now, even a single instance is a problem for the Jewish community.

The victims of abuse have been both boys and girls, and their attackers are often trusted members of the community who have known the children's families for years. Abuse has occurred in synagogues and day schools, places where families look for the installation of Jewish ethics and values, places where people should feel safe.

Those who prey on children, say the experts, often build up a relationship with the child, gaining his or her trust before making a move.

"Whether the child is an alter boy or a girl in Sunday school, who loves and respects the person in authority, the scene is set, the dynamic is there. That's so with any religion," says Wendy Demchick-Alloy, an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County who prosecuted many such crimes over the years. "You inherently want to respect and put trust and faith in your religious leaders."

She goes on to explain that sexual assault of children "is, as disgusting as it sounds, a very quiet event committed by a very warped person and doesn't leave physical evidence." What they do leave behind, she says, are "devastating emotional scars."

Rabbi Juda Mintz pleaded guilty earlier this year to possessing child pornography.

"These cases often are based on a dynamic of authority, power and trust that's violated in the deepest way," explains Demchick-Alloy.

Technically, the words "sexual abuse" as defined in Pennsylvania's crimes code deal with criminality of making or disseminating photos, videos, pictures and films of children engaging in sexual acts. Lay people often use that term interchangeably with what the crimes code calls "sexual offenses," the actual criminal act ranging from indecent exposure to sexual contact and intercourse.

Among the most recent cases involving rabbis or cantors are:

·Cantor Philip H. Wittlin, formerly of Chisuk Emuna Congregation in Harrisburg, Pa., pleaded guilty on Feb. 12 to a number of charges, including five counts each of corruption of minors and two counts of aggravated indecent assault. His sentencing hearing earlier this month will be continued next month.

Rabbi Juda Mintz, formerly of Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph Township, N.J., pleaded guilty on Feb. 26 to possessing child pornography and is expected to be sentenced on June 12. He faces up to five years in prison.

Rabbi Richard M. Marcovitz, religious leader of Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City, was charged Feb. 26 with numerous counts of indecent or lewd acts with minors, as well as sexual battery. The charges stem from allegations by two students and two adult employees at the Oklahoma City Jewish Community Day School, which is housed in the synagogue.

Cantor Howard Nevison, of Temple Emanu-El in New York, was arrested Feb. 20 by Lower Merion Police after his nephew told authorities that Nevison had sexually abused him from the time he was 3 until he was 7.

Facing the problem

For all the known cases - these are just a few - those involved in the issue say other perpetrators are probably out there, and that the Jewish community has yet to step forward and deal with the problem head-on.

"It's not something we ever thought could happen here, and now we realize it is happening," says Rabbi Abraham Twersky, a Pittsburgh-area psychiatrist who founded the Gateways Rehabilitation Center, a drug- and substance-abuse center, in Aliquippa, Pa.

Twersky, who was consulted on a number of cases involving sexual abuse by religious leaders, is credited in part with bringing social issues like domestic violence and drug abuse to the forefront of Orthodox Judaism.

"In English, you say it's a shame, it's an embarrassment, a disgrace," but in Hebrew, Twersky says, "you would use the word shandah, the most disgrace possible. And the Jewish community has always been careful not to have a shandah. ... We're just reluctant to accept that these problems are within us."

Rabbi Mark Dratch, religious leader of Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn., who wrote about the issue for the Rabbinical Council of America, and who sits on the Jewish advisory committee for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, agrees. "My impression is the lack of the Jewish community's ability or desire to deal with these issues is based not on halachic grounds, but on denial, on the willingness to deal with difficult situations and believe these kinds of allegations."

But, he continues, when people use halachah (Jewish laws), such as the obligation against lashon hara, or speaking bad about another, to justify their actions in keeping silent or not turning in an alleged abuser, "that's an abuse of the halachic system itself."

Charlotte Schwab, Ph.D., a Florida-based psychotherapist who has been counseling victims of sexual abuse for 10 years, knows firsthand the devastation such abuse can cause. At one time, she was married to a New York rabbi who was accused of such crimes. Though now divorced from him, she acknowledges that it has led to her current work.

The victims of sexual abuse by rabbis or cantors, explains Schwab, "feel worthless, shamed, that it's somehow their fault."

Often, she says, "they don't dare tell anybody. They hide themselves, and it affects their lives in many ways - in their ability to function, to take care of their families."

The victims, according to Schwab, "often never recover. It's very traumatic."

And like people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, these victims "relive the experience" in their minds over and over again, even through adulthood, she insists.

(Name Removed), one of Philip Wittlin's victims, tried to tell her family years ago what the cantor had done, but at the time believed somehow that "it was my fault." Instead, she told her parents that he had caressed not her private parts, but her back.

Her stepmother, (Name Removed), recalls that Wittlin is "a touchy-feely kind of guy, and at the time, "we brushed it off."

But when victims do step forward, they are often the ones put on trial, not necessarily in the criminal courts, but in the court of public opinion.

"They are often accused of being troublemakers, or making it up or wanting revenge," says Schwab, adding, "that's preposterous, because ... who'd want to go make that up?"

Says Dratch: "There needs to be a lot of support for people coming forward, so they find the personal support, the congregational support, so they are not victimized a second time."

But, he acknowledges, "it's hard because many times an alleged perpetrator is known by the community, and they have a hard time accepting the accusation against him. And they may be themselves in a state of denial."

"The real tragedy of all of this," adds Schwab, "is the cover-up and denial by spokespeople of [religious] denominations who say this doesn't exist."

Educating the community

For those who have been abused by rabbis or cantors, the abuse can sometimes overshadow any feelings they have for Judaism, according to Schwab. Some, she says, leave the religion and their communities. "I try to help them see that there are some safe places, and even some male rabbis who are trying to change things," says Schwab.

Many believe that it is time for a sea change to occur in the way the Jewish community deals with the issue. "We need to be more aggressive with education, and while we're concerned with internally issues of tzinnus [`modesty'] or shandah," says Dratch, "we cannot sacrifice the safety and well-being of our children.

"There needs to be more open discussions in the schools, shuls and families with regard to this issue," he continues. "And, I think, there needs to be more of a grass-roots effort" to address it and combat it.

"If there's a situation where [communal] leaders are negligent in their leadership, then lay people need to step forward and change the facts on the ground on how the issue is discussed or addressed."

To be sure, some steps are being taken to educate upcoming rabbis and cantors about appropriate behavior and how to deal with the issue of sexual abuse by religious leaders when it is brought to their attention. The education, some say, is also to help cantors and rabbis avoid being in a position where false allegations can occur.

The Cantors Assembly of the Conservative movement, for example, issued guidelines last year in the form of a letter to members. According to Stephen Stein, the group's executive vice president, those recommendations include having parents sit in on Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons or having another child in the room. Cantors should also sit across, not next to, the child. The group also advises cantors to avoid any physical contact with kids.

Rabbinic movements have codes of ethics that members are expected to abide by, but so far none are believed to have issued such in-depth guidelines.

The religious movements say they address the issue at conferences or in classes at the rabbinical schools. Several rabbinical groups mentioned that candidates must pass, at the very least, one interview and have several letters of recommendations, which they say help weed out potentially troublesome candidates.

Even with the most rigorous interview and screening processes, abusers can make it through the system, some say. The question then becomes what to do with them.

The experts say that a thorough and immediate investigation must be conducted into any claim of abuse against a child, no matter what the circumstances.

That's something that did not happen in the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a former leader of the National Council of Synagogue Youth. Though rumors and allegations persisted for years about possible sexual misconduct with minors, no one - including the Orthodox Union, which oversees the youth group - investigated until a story appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

Likewise, according to members of Harrisburg's Jewish community, whispers of sexual-abuse allegations against Philip Wittlin date back at least 10 years.

Dratch hits the point home to the community in a single, albeit frightening, sentence: "Most pedophiles do not have one victim, they have many victims, and unless they are taken out of circulation, they will not be stopped."

No Remorse on Accuser's Part, as Ex-Cantor Has His Day in Court.


Inside the cavernous, poorly lit courtroom, the tension was palpable on May 16 as victims of sexual abuse gathered for the sentencing of their attacker, Philip H. Wittlin, formerly a cantor at Chisuk Emuna Congregation in Harrisburg.

Wittlin had pleaded guilty in February to a number of charges, including two counts of aggravated indecent assault and five counts of corruption of minors.

The charges were based on the abuse of two girls, but authorities say Wittlin victimized others, though the statue of limitations had run out on those crimes. At the time of the abuse, the victims were under 18 and affiliated with the congregation.

Some of Wittlin's older victims, including (Name Removed), 21, were on hand to lend moral support to the two teens who had reported the abuse that led to the former cantor's arrest.

Wittlin's victims and their supporters filled the middle four rows of benches behind the prosecutor's desk. They sat beside family members who occasionally would lean over and whisper in their ears, or touch them on the shoulder for encouragement.

At one point, a male relative of one of the young girls appeared to ask a woman with the district attorney's office whether Wittlin would just walk into court. The official put her hands by her waist, moved them close together and mouthed the words, "in handcuffs."

Indeed, when Wittlin entered the court nearly an hour later, he was shackled.

A stocky man with a beard, receding hairline and thick, black-rimmed glasses, the 56-year-old Wittlin didn't glance at his accusers as he entered the courtroom.

The prosecutor, Kimberly Alfieri, led the sentencing hearing with testimony by Dr. Barry Zakireh, a licensed psychologist and a member of the sexual-offenders' assessment board who testified about Wittlin's actions.

Zakireh noted that when questioned by police, Wittlin said that he may have touched the victims, but that it was "accidental."

According to the psychologist, "that suggests that he does not consider himself guilty of intending to commit sexual [assault]. It tells me he does not have much remorse or empathy toward the victim."

He also noted that over the years, Wittlin's actions escalated from touching young girls inappropriately to actual "penetration."

Wittlin, Zakireh testified, "meets the criteria for a sexually violent predator, ... considering only the two cases of which he's charged. If you consider the other victims that have since come forward, it would only strengthen that case."

Looking at the "number of times abuse occurred against the two victims," said Zakireh, you see a "deliberate, intentional pattern in which [Wittlin] planned his offenses."

Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are allowed to call witnesses during the sentencing hearing to help the judge weigh the case and dole out an appropriate punishment. The proceedings ended in the middle of the prosecutor's presentation.

The hearing is expected to resume on June 14, when the prosecution will call additional witnesses to make statements, including (Name Removed) and other of Wittlin's victims. To date, the defense has no witnesses listed to speak on Wittlin's behalf.

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