Monday, September 01, 2003

Ala. Rabbis Required To Report Suspected Child Abuse Cases

September 1, 2003 - October 31, 2003
SECTION: Vol. 13, No. 10; Pg. 13
Deep South Jewish Voice September 1, 2003 - October 31, 2003

Rabbis across Alabama are generally applauding a new state law requiring them to report suspected cases of child abuse to a "duly constituted authority."

The new law, which went into effect Sept. 1, states clergy and other religious officials who have "ample opportunity to interact with children" are added to a list of professionals subject to that requirement.

Unlike other professionals, though, clergy members may be exempt from reporting abuse cases if the only evidence they have is "gained solely in a confidential communication." The person relating the information has the right to express that it should not be revealed, as does the clergy member.

There are now 38 states that require religious leaders to report abuse or neglect. The issue has received national attention with the on-going Catholic Church abuse cases, and with the recent case of a national Orthodox youth group leader accused of sexual abuse.

National organizations have been looking at their procedures for handling such instances. The Conservative movement is about to release guidelines for congregations dealing with training and policies to deal with the current climate.

Attorney General Bill Pryor held a clergy symposium in Montgomery on Aug. 28 to explain the new law, but word has been slow to filter out. Many rabbis contacted for this story were not aware of the new law.

Abuse is defined as the "non-accidental physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or attempted sexual abuse or sexual exploitation or attempted sexual exploitation" of someone below the age of 18.

The law also covers "negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child, including the failure to provide adequate food, medical treatment, supervision, clothing or shelter."

Those who fail to comply with the law can be fined $500 and receive up to six months in prison.

Anyone who makes a "good faith" report under this law is immune from civil or criminal liability. The person making the report may also express doubts about the authenticity of the charges.

Rabbi Jeffrey Ballon of Huntsville's Temple B'nai Sholom said he does not have a problem with the law, but stated "I've never needed a law to tell me that I needed to protect a kid."

In teaching Sunday School for over 40 years, he has contacted the authorities once, when he was in Florida and it was the law there. Ballon said he "felt obliged to do it whether it was the law or not."

Rabbi Brian Glusman of Birmingham's Temple Beth-El supports the new law "100 percent," and said it is important for clergy members to know their own limitations. Often, a clergy member thinks he or she has adequate training to handle this situation, when that is not the case. This rule will make it easier to bring in those who are specifically trained for such situations.

Ballon said the Jewish community in general is not aware of the potential for abuse, and that such problems have occurred in the Jewish world.

Temple Beth Or Rabbi Kenneth Segel agreed, saying "the numbers have been relatively low, but the numbers are increasing."

When Ballon arrived at B'nai Sholom, he pointed out that the classrooms have no windows, even in the doors. "If there happened to be a teacher alone with a student, no one had the ability to know... if something improper was going on."

The potential for misunderstandings and "he said-she said" prompted him to institute a rule years ago that he would never meet with a student if there were no one else in the building.

Many rabbis hesitate closing the door for one-on-one counseling sessions with congregants, because of the fear that false allegations may be made.

Segel said the situation of reporting abuse "is very delicate." Because the repercussions for a family are so severe, there should be special care taken to avoid false reports. "Is the child telling the truth, even when there are physical signs?"

He said a rabbi must be attuned to the family situation. Is the child embellishing because of anger toward one parent, or in a divorce situation? Calling the authorities "is not to be done lightly, because I have seen (situations) where mistakes were made."

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