Orthodox Rabbi Issues Warning on Sexual Abuse, Says Community Needs To Learn From Catholic Church Scandal
By AMI EDEN
Forward - May 3, 2002
The rabbi of a prominent Manhattan synagogue is using the occasion of the Catholic Church's sex scandal to warn that Orthodox institutions are often "dismissive" of abuse complaints.
Rabbi Ari Berman, the religious leader of the Jewish Center, a well-heeled Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, issued the warning last weekend during a Saturday morning sermon. Berman said the Orthodox community needs to learn from the sex abuse scandal racking the Catholic Church. While asserting that sexual abuse cases are far more common in the Catholic community than in Orthodox circles, Berman criticized Orthodox institutions for dismissing many of the claims that do arise in their own backyard.
"Perhaps in the outside world there might be an exaggerated tendency to launch a witch hunt, to fire people and prosecute immediately," said Berman, whose predecessors at the Jewish Center include Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi J.J. Schachter, dean of a Modern Orthodox think tank in Brookline, Mass. "But in the Orthodox world we have the opposite tendency: to circle the wagons and deny wrongdoing. The concern for the reputation of the teacher or school is given greater weight than the child's words."
Berman's sermon comes as American Jews are struggling to understand the ramifications of the church's sex scandal for their own religious institutions. It also comes as the most prominent Orthodox organization in
America, the Orthodox Union, attempts to recover from its own sex scandal involving Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a popular leader of its youth group, the National Council of Synagogue Youth.
An independent commission set up by the O.U. determined that the organization had failed to act on complaints about Lanner, who allegedly abused dozens of students over 30 years. In his sermon, Berman said that allegations of sex abuse were not limited to Lanner and had not disappeared in the wake of the O.U. scandal.
"Just a short time ago, a much publicized case of abuse and negligence in the Modern Orthodox world raised this issue in the public consciousness," Berman said, in an apparent reference to the Lanner scandal. "I wish I could say that these were the only cases that I have heard in our community, but they are not. There are others, and some with tragic endings."
To hammer home his point, Berman told the story of a pre-teen child who claimed he had been molested by a rabbi at summer camp. According to Berman, even though the rabbi had been the subject of previous complaints, the camp rejected the allegation, and a teacher at the child's school told the student "to stop making up stories, to forget about it and to move on." The family was ostracized, Berman said, and had trouble enrolling the child in another school.
Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, argued that Orthodox sensitivity to sex abuse has greatly improved since the Lanner scandal became public almost two years ago. He cited one Orthodox school that, when faced with a credible complaint just a few months ago, immediately fired the teacher, contacted law enforcement authorities and supplied the student in question with psychological counseling.
"The Lanner incident really awoke and sensitized the community," said Dworken, whose group represents more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis. "We are surely more sensitized now than five years ago. You don't think that the entire world is more sensitized since the Catholic Church scandal?
Unfortunately it takes such a scandal to sensitize people." Meanwhile, Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a leading ultra-Orthodox group, said leaders of his community have no tolerance for sex abuse, and that those who commit such acts are blackballed from holding educational positions.
But Rabbi Yosef Blau, a religious adviser to students at Yeshiva University and harsh critic of the O.U.'s handling of the complaints against Lanner, argued that in both the Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worlds, organizations still do not adequately respond to sex abuse complaints. He acknowledged, however, that some progress has been made, with several prominent rabbis, including the O.U.'s new professional head, Rabbi Zvi Hersh Weinreb, instructing followers to bring sex abuse complaints to law enforcement agencies.
Many rabbis, especially older ones, simply find it hard to believe that any of their colleagues would sexually abuse children, said Blau, who sat on a three-person rabbinical court that decided not to take severe action against Lanner in 1989. But, Blau said, after hearing additional complaints and learning more about sexual abuse, he realized that he had made a mistake in not pushing for Lanner to be barred from working with young people.
Blau said that even when rabbis are dismissed or leave their job under suspicion, they often manage to find educational work in another city. Blau said he is strongly in favor of Berman's call for the creation of a "national registry" for schools, camps and youth groups to check before hiring staffers.