Fear and loathing in Har Nof
Friday, March 07, 2003
Case of Several Child Sex Offenders in Har Nof (Jerusalem, Israel)
Case of Several Child Sex Offenders in Har Nof
Police succeeded in arresting two long-time known alleged sex offencers in the winter of 2002-2003. In early January, a 17-year-old haredi Har Nof resident admitted to sexually abusing young boys. The police said he had raped and sodomized 15 to 20 children from the ages of five to 10 in a local synagogue. And one month later, a 27-year-old non-haredi man from Har Nof admitted to committing over 25 acts of molestation on girls aged six to 11 over the past three years, according to Jerusalem Police Spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby.
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By Stuart Winer, Additional reporting by Hilary Leila Krieger
Jerusalem Post - March 7, 2003
Edition; In Jerusalem, Section: Features, Page: 01
Friday, March 7, 2003 -- In the last two months, public revelations of child molestation have caused fear and shock in the predominantly haredi neighborhood of Har Nof. As police try to combat the incidents of abuse, the community must combat a code of silence which has traditionally pushed such abuse below the surface.
"The haredi community is not used to talking to strangers on any subject, " said Dov Bernstein, supervisor for the Jerusalem area investigators of the Child Investigation Service at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. "Add to that the problem of them being victims of sexual attacks and it can be very difficult."
Yet police succeeded in arresting two long-time abusers this winter. In early January, a 17-year-old haredi Har Nof resident admitted to sexually abusing young boys. The police said he had raped and sodomized 15 to 20 children from the ages of five to 10 in a local synagogue. And one month later, a 27-year-old non-haredi man from Har Nof admitted to committing over 25 acts of molestation on girls aged six to 11 over the past three years, according to Jerusalem Police Spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby.
But there are scores of other cases in the neighborhood that go unprosecuted for lack of evidence; in many instances they are not even reported. Now that the topic has been brought to the public's attention, everyone seems to know someone who has been affected by the phenomena.
"No one knows names," said Bertha Goldstein as she watched a group of children playing on Rehov Kaplan in Har Nof. "But there are men approaching children."
Over the past months local Har Nof newsletters have carried numerous appeals for parents to remain alert after children were accosted in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood.
"I recently heard of a guy who tried to stop a 12- year-old girl from leaving a building. She way lucky because some other girls walked in and she managed to run for it," Goldstein said. "Everyone thought these were isolated incidents but now they are beginning to piece things together."
"People are now very cautious about letting their children walk around alone," Goldstein said. "Even 12 and 13-year-old girls are not allowed out by themselves."
When victims do go to the authorities, they often find there's not much that can be done. One Har Nof mother recounted that after her 18-year-old daughter was fondled by an unknown haredi man in the elevator of their apartment complex one afternoon last summer, she filed a complaint with the police.
She said the complaint was a means of taking action, "[But] I don' t know if it does any good."
She noted that no arrest was ever made but didn't blame the police.
"I don't think the police can really do anything," she said, explaining, "he [the perpetrator] looks like the rest of the population. What would he do to stand out? It has to be residents, who know he's different and doesn't belong."
That's one of the reasons she said she believes speaking out about incidents of abuse is important. "If everybody called [attention to potential abusers], maybe we could do something about these weirdos."
Once she and her daughter began to talk about what had happened, they found that several friends and neighbors had experienced similar traumas.
"There's a lot of stuff going on in Har Nof," the mother said, noting that her daughter's experience "wasn't such an isolated case ... Frequently I've found out that people have gone through this."
While she said the women whom she told about the molestation were supportive and as a result felt freer to talk about their own similar experiences, she expressed some annoyance that no one had shared these incidents with her before.
"They weren't common knowledge. I didn't know I should be worried and alert."
Even so, she said her daughter thought twice about entering the elevator when she saw a strange man inside. When she noticed a second-grader also in the lift, she decided it was safe to enter.
"As soon as the doors closed he began to handle [fondle] my daughter, to grope her," the mother described. "She yelled at him and he got out and ran."
Afterwards, the mother recollected how her daughter "was very shaken, " as was the young girl who witnessed the attack.
But her daughter told her, "I have to go out now or I won't be able to go out."
The alternative would have been that "she would get crippled by fear, " the mother added. "It strikes your security. You don't trust anybody."
The sense of mistrust applies to the community as a whole, the mother explained.
"One would think that ostensibly in a religious neighborhood, people behave better," she said. "I think that we assume a certain kind of [safety]. We don't play around. We live by the Torah. Guys don't bother girls. Men stay married. It's not a free-for-all in terms of morality ... One individual can wreak a lot of havoc. "
But experts contacted by In Jerusalem said they didn't have any statistics to track whether rates of sexual abuse are higher or lower in haredi communities than in the public at large.
But Haim Walder, manager of the Center for the Child and Family in Bnei Brak, an organization that deals with child abuse in the haredi community, said that while "petty crime is almost unheard of in the haredi community, sexual crime is more common and more of a problem. People don't even think about it going on."
Walder, himself haredi, added, "The biggest problem is closure. People don't want to report it or talk about it."
"We found in Har Nof that we knew a lot of information but parents were not prepared to talk. We knew things were going on but people would not come forward," Bernstein said.
Yifat Boyer, an attorney at the National Council for the Child, an organization that provides legal aid for children, agreed that the lack of openness makes tackling child abuse in communities like Har Nof difficult.
"Even the people who are trying to address the issue in the haredi community don't talk about sex, or sexuality, or even use words like that."
"You don't want to overexpose the specifics of the threat the way a lot of media tends to go into graphic detail," Walder said. "On the other hand we don't want to ignore it."
Walder said that community leaders face the dilemma of how to warn children without exposing them to things that they don't want them to know about. The solution, in his opinion, is to give over the message in a way that is acceptable to community sensitivities.
"For example, there is a kid's book with a story that explains it is important to keep away from strangers without explaining what the danger is," Walder explained. He added that the idea is to encourage children to talk more about what happens to them.
At the same time he noted, "In some ways it is better not to scare the children" about concepts such as incest, inicidents of which he claimed is rare.
Boyer said educating children about incest in the haredi community can be a real problem due to the absolute authority wielded by haredi parents.
"You can't tell haredi children not to do what their father tells them to do," Boyer said.
Bernstein said that in some cases it can take years for children to realize that something happened to them.
Bernstein theorized that the dogma of benevolence and generosity on which haredi youth is raised may make them easy targets.
"There is a method to seducing children, of getting close to them. Child molesters know just how to talk to children to gain their confidence, " Bernstein said. "Since haredi youth are educated to believe in helping people whenever they can, they are easier to seduce."
Bernstein suggested that in some cases the hospitality inherent in haredi communities can result in predators being invited right into victims' homes.
"They also want to help each other and to help ba'alei tshuva (the newly observant), Bernstein added. "So it is confusing to the children who see their parents inviting these people into their homes and then they are not sure if there is something wrong when they interfere with them."
And the unwillingness to challenge authority extends to the means of dealing with cases, which Boyer said often revolve around the rabbis.
"Even when a rabbi knows about a case in his community he is less likely to report it to the authorities but will try to deal with it himself," he said. "That could be because they don't recognize the authorities and they also don't want the story to get out."
Additionally, Walder said, "Sometimes the victim suffers at the expense of the public and the media who have a field day, and that is something that the rabbis did not want to happen.The idea is to help the victim and the community."
Bernstein said that all victims of sexual abuse need to receive treatment. If denied it, the results can be dire. Studies have shown that victims of child sexual abuse who are not treated are prone to become abusers themselves as adults.
"The more serious the initial attack, the more intensive the treatment must be," Bernstein said. "It takes time, sometimes even up to three years of treatment, but it is critical."
Bernstein said some rabbinic leaders are taking special training and there are additional courses for religious women to help them to deal with these situations.
"People who do try to deal with incidents by intuition or from the Holy Scriptures can do even more damage," Bernstein said. "I know of cases in which rabbis said, 'It's not so bad,' or they drove families out of the community instead of trying to deal with the problem."
Har Nof resident and school principal Yizhak Soffer, said he feels that community leaders could be doing more.
"The cover-up attitude is stupid," he said. "The correct attitude is to be on the offensive. They should be supervising education, be much more aware of strangers, teach basic self-defense so that the kids know what to do if something happens."
Because of the difficulties in breaking into the closed community on a subject that is not only intimate, but also taboo, Bernstein said the investigators apply a method known as "joining."
He explained, "We often investigate in stages. First we build confidence by getting to know the children, and talking about neutral subjects."
"We are really in early days with dealing with it," Boyer said. "We are trying to hold a meeting with the people in the haredi community to try and make in-roads."
"It all starts with the rabbi," Bernstein said. "The more the rabbis are involved, the more likely the community is to involve outsiders in the process. I know one rabbi who managed to persuade some families to go to the police although they didn't want to at first."
Bernstein sees the first stage to tackling the problem in gaining the support of the community leaders.
"The more the rabbis are prepared to listen to us, even if they have suspicions, they will understand that we have the same interests: to protect the children."
The process of apprehending and punishing pedophiles in this country is a long and complicated one that can continue for years. First the perpetrator must be identified and subsequently arrested. The 27-year- old arrested in Har Nof last month carried out attacks for three years before being apprehended after a girl came forward with details of how he had molested her in a residential building. After police began investing the case, other victims spoke out.
There are many instances when the accused is released until the case comes to court. The 17-year-old arrested in January is currently under house arrest at his brother's.
Prosecution procedures begin when police receive a complaint from a victim. If, on the basis of initial evidence, the state attorney' s office decides to prosecute, then the child investigators take over. According to the law, children under the age of 14 are forbidden from providing testimony in court in order to protect them from difficult questioning. Instead of the child, the investigator who handled the case gives testimony.
All investigations with the children are videotaped from the first interview until the end of the investigation. The tape is then submitted to the court, where the judges watch all the footage and the investigator give testimony in place of the victim. Child abuse investigator Dov Bernstein said that in some cases the investigator decides that the victim can give evidence if the child seems confident and strong enough to do so. Usually, however, it is the investigator who speaks in the name of the child, a circumstance that Bernstein says is unique in the whole world.
By law, anyone who knows of a case and doesn't report it to the authorities can be sentenced to six months in prison.
"There is a legal requirement to report incidents that apply not just to community leaders or educators but all members of the public too, " Bernstein said. "There have been cases in the past when rabbis were investigated."
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Last Updated: 09/06/2004
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