A little known Jewish law called mesira, found in the Talmud with some scriptural support, forbids a Jew from reporting another Jew to the gentile authorities. The law was in response to non-Jewish governments whose courts were staffed by antisemites. According to Jewish leaders, those courts looked for any excuse to find against a Jew. Many rabbis took a rather dim view of gentile legal processes, advocating that their courts were flawed, antisemitic and less capable than Jewish courts. Mesira essentially allowed Jewish courts to retain control over all disputes, ensuring that religious law prevailed.
In today's society, where there are proper, transparent and just courts of law, the law of mesira has largely been abandoned. Most Jewish communities recognise the legal system of the countries where they live; saving relatively few disputes, mostly centring on religious issues such as divorce, for the Jewish courts. However, the ultra-Orthodox communities still use mesira to prohibit any Jew being reported to the non-Jewish authorities.
As can be imagined, this is a pretty dangerous stance to take, particularly in terms of violent criminals. Perpetrators of, for example, domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual crimes, are often protected by the ultra-Orthodox communities and dealt with "in-house". They are sometimes beaten up by the self-appointed Jewish "police", and often moved to areas where there is no knowledge of their crimes.
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have been afforded similar protection to Catholic priests. Rabbis have continued to teach, in their own or in new institutions. Yehuda Kolko allegedly had his crimes covered up by the Yeshiva Torah Temima school where he taught for over 25 years. Communities have shielded fugitives, such as Nachman Stal, who fled charges in Israel and was protected for almost a decade by the North London ultra-Orthodox community.
As with the Catholic church, silencing the victims has kept secret, at least from the wider public, ongoing abuse within ultra-Orthodox Jewish institutions. Various Jewish laws have been twisted and misused to threaten victims with divine retribution for reporting crimes. Families are told that their other children will not be given suitable matches for marriage, or won't be accepted by good schools, if the boat is rocked. Similar threats of communal ostracism were used by the Catholic church in Ireland to silence the many people who knew of abuse in Christian Brothers' institutions.
Within many closed, religious communities there is fear of communal repercussions, religious leaders, and ultimately of God. Fears are exploited to allow grave crimes to be covered up, and to continue within religious institutions. Motives of religious leaders may be hard to prove, but there are clear financial incentives as well as issues of power and control that have influenced the positions taken towards perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
There are huge financial implications for admitting abuse and permitting court cases. In the US alone, the Catholic church has paid over $2.5bn to victims. Little wonder then that ultra-Orthodox rabbis opposed New York's Markey bill which sought to extend the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases about child sexual abuse. Now that abuse is coming to light, the financial implications could be devastating for institutions that covered up allegations and continued to employ abusers.
Similarly, leaders, seeking retain a tight grip of control over their communities, covered up scandals to avoid schisms, splits or defections. Yet these tactics have backfired. In silencing victims and protecting perpetrators, these religious communities face a crisis beyond anything they could have imagined.
As in the Catholic church, things are starting to change in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. Top rabbis, such as Rav Elyashiv, have come out in support of reporting abuse to the police. Indeed, they have emphasised that prosecution is necessary to keep communities safe and to protect children. Self-appointed Jewish "police" in Flatbush have now told their community to report all abuse directly to the gentile police. Clearly, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world is learning from the recent spate of cases, the Catholic church's experience, and listening to the victims. But can it be enough to say that the institutions will change only once the scandals have broken, or is a Catholic-style crisis of faith about to hit the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community?