Friday, March 29, 2002

Rabbis Back Law To Report Child Abuse

Rabbis Back Law To Report Child Abuse
By Rachel Donadil
Forward - March 29, 2002

With the exception of a major ultra-Orthodox organization, rabbinical groups of all denominations say they support proposed legislation in New York State that would require clergy to report allegations of child abuse.  

Robert Morgenthau - Manhattan DA
The proposal, which would broaden the state's Social Services Law to make clergy of all religions criminally liable if they do not report instances of child abuse, was advanced last week by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in the wake of growing allegations of molestation within the Catholic Church.  This week, the Democrat-controlled State Assembly proposed similar legislation, and a version passed in the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Most rabbinical groups said they were not concerned that the legislation would violate confidentiality between clergy and congregants.

"I think that full disclosure to the authorities would be not only acceptable, I think it's imperative," said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement's Central Council of American Rabbis. "Ethical violations, whether they're violations of the criminal code or not, need to be dealt with very openly, fairly and directly by each denomination. Anything short of that is not keeping faith with our people."

The ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, however, said it was wary of the legislation, which would require clergy to "report to authorities whenever they have reasonable cause to believe a child has been abused," according to a March 19 statement by Morgenthau.

Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel

David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Aguda, said he feared that the proposal could infringe on "religious freedom."

"There ought to be some exemption for situations involving confidentiality," Zwiebel said. "To protect the Catholic confessional-type situation, and more specifically in our community, to protect those situations where a member of the community does want to confide in his rabbi and get guidance and counseling without fear of having the whole fury of the secular legal system descend on him."

Last summer, Aguda and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York joined forces to oppose a proposed bill in the City Council that would have required all schools, including parochial schools, to file a police report about any criminal act committed by students or staff.

Zwiebel said he was concerned that secular law would "not necessarily" respect religious concerns, such as the concept of mesira, a category of rabbinic canon law concerning when a Jew may inform on another to the secular government. He said that rabbis should evaluate issues "on a case-by-case" basis.

However, Zwiebel said, "if a person is perceived as an imminent danger to children or others, rabbis would say, `let's not handle this internally, let's bring it to outside authorities.'"

Looking more favorably on the legislation was the Orthodox Union, representing Modern Orthodox synagogues. "In principal we'd be supportive," said Harvey Blitz, president of O.U. "We believe that clergy have a responsibility to protect the safety of people from being victims."

"We were told by our Halachic authorities that we should without any type of delay report these instances to the police," said Steven Dworkin, the head of the Rabbinical Council of America, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical body, referring to religious law.

Two years ago O.U. faced its own abuse scandal when several top officials stepped down following claims that they ignored 30 years of abuse complaints against the director of its national youth group, Rabbi Baruch Lanner.

Blitz was unfazed by the thought that under the proposed legislation, O.U. clergy would have been criminally liable for ignoring allegations of abuse. "Maybe they would have reported it," Blitz said.

Rabbi Joel Myers
"We've tried very hard to change the culture at the O.U. in light of what happened" and make children feel "more comfortable" reporting abuse and leaders "more sensitive" to allegations, Blitz said.

Rabbi Joel Myers, president of Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly, also said he supported the proposal.

Myers said clergy confidentiality was not as "cut and dry" as some would make it out to be. "Every rabbi knows not everything is confidential or ought to be," he said. "Many clergy will say, `I'll be glad to listen but I won't be able to tell you if it's confidential until you tell me what the issue is.'"

Rabbi David Teutsch

The church scandal "may have nothing to do with confidentiality," Myers said. "Confidentiality becomes a nice sounding word, but that's not the issue. The issue is how bishops supervise priests."

"It is clear that social pressures on the clergy are such that transferring the obligation to enforce justice onto the legal system is a helpful step," said Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.