Saturday, November 22, 2003

More faith communities struggle with alleged child sexual abuse

Ragsdale: More faith communities struggle with alleged child sexual abuse
By SHIRLEY RAGSDALE, Register Religion Editor
Des Moines Register - November 22, 2003

American Jews have joined Catholics and United Methodists on the list of U.S. denominations that are wrestling with how to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse.
This year, the Rabbinical Council of America joined the other three Jewish denominations in voting to report allegations of child abuse to the police. 

Prompted in part by the case of a rabbi, whose appearance in Des Moines was cancelled earlier this month, the rabbinical council reversed a long-standing Orthodox practice of protecting accused rabbis or trying to take care of scandal internally. The organization's ethics policy is being rewritten with the help of mental health professionals and survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. 

It's a huge step forward for a faith tradition with a history of persecution. That history undoubtedly contributed to an ancient Jewish prohibition called a Mesirah, a mandate that no Jew should betray another Jew to civil authorities. 

The urge to stifle scandal and preserve the status quo has been a common reaction for congregations that are confronted by allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy. But it's a bad choice that ill-serves everyone involved - the victims, the accused, the congregation and the community. 

Resorting to secrecy got the Boston Catholic Archdiocese in trouble, because when 50 years of accumulated accusations of sexual misconduct poured out over six months, it exaggerated the scope of the problem. 

A similar reaction by a Winnipeg, Canada, Jewish congregation to allegations of child sexual abuse has permanently scarred the synagogue, the victims, their families and the alleged abuser. 

Beth El Jacob Synagogue on Nov. 13 cancelled the appearance of New York Rabbi Ephraim Bryks because of an e-mail campaign to alert Iowans that Bryks was accused of molesting children nearly 20 years ago when he was the leader of a Canadian synagogue and Jewish day school. 

Like the Boston Catholic cases, the charges are decades old. 

Like the Catholic cases, synagogue leaders did their best to hush things up. 

Instead of immediately asking police or child and family services to investigate, they held an internal "investigation." A number of meetings were held which reportedly disintegrated into yelling matches between the families of the victims and the rabbi's supporters. 

Winnipeg social services agencies didn't get the case until later, after the congregation had taken sides and possibly victims had been intimidated. No criminal charges were filed. But investigators said Bryks' actions were inappropriate and unprofessional. 

Bryks has always denied he did anything wrong. He left Canada in 1990 and settled in New York where he worked as a principal and a teacher. This year he resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America after some members sought his ouster. 

Victoria Polin, founder, and Na'ama Yehuda, advisory board member of The Awareness Center, an international organization dedicated to addressing sexual abuse in Jewish communities, have said that Jews carry an extra burden when it comes to going public with a sex scandal. 

"Over the years there have been many reasons why the Jewish community kept silent about sexual crimes committed by individuals in our community," Polin wrote on her Web site "There is a large number of hate groups that would love to promote their propaganda on their Web pages and in publications by posting information about Jews who molest. Their eagerness is a reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and thriving." 

Additionally, some fervently Orthodox congregations feel bound by the Mesirah, that no Jew should betray another Jew to civil authorities. 

The prohibition arose because Jews have lived under autocratic governments and biased judicial systems for much of their history. Informing could lead to dangerous persecution of the entire Jewish community. 

Congregations relied on the judgment of special Jewish courts to settle disputes and deal out punishment. While those courts still exist, their power is limited, according to Rabbi David Jay Kaufman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines. 

"These special courts operated with authorities from civil authorities," Kaufman said. "They dealt with Jewish law, which many times was more stringent than secular law. It was useful for keeping community social structures intact." 

While the local Jewish community is still mindful of anti-Semitism and avoiding scandal, it would be unconscionable for anyone in the Jewish faith tradition to hesitate to report a child abuse situation today, Kaufman said. 

"In some states, clergy are required to report suspicions of child abuse," Kaufman said. "As far as I'm concerned, it is a good thing. My primary concern is for the children. The people who do this kind of thing usually don't have just one victim, so if you don't do something to stop them, you are endangering other children. I can't think of a reason that would morally or ethically make it allowable not to report." 

The work of Jewish leaders who share Kaufman's attitude toward reporting child abuse and the Orthodox community's decision to embrace a reporting policy show an "ongoing maturation process for the community in general to have the courage and determination to act aggressively against problems which have always been with us," said Rabbi Mark Dratch, who authored the Rabbinical Council resolution. 

"A lot of factors are forcing us to deal with (child abuse) to assert leadership and not just to look for cover," Dratch told The Jewish Week. "We need to do what is necessary for the welfare of the community and the integrity of the Torah."

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