Jewish and Secular Law Clash as Rabbinical Oversight Continues in Child Molestation Cases

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who last year issued an edict wherein he explained the dilemma facing rabbinical authorities today vis-à-vis allegations of abuse against children within the Chareidi community.In Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities, children and adolescents alleging molestation or sexual abuse are instructed to first obtain permission from a local rabbi before contacting police to file charges.

This communal policy has generated much controversy in recent weeks, as reports in The New York Times have shown that the atmosphere among the ultra-Orthodox generally appears to sway in the abuser’s direction. In other words, with the injunction of having to receive rabbinical sanction before heading over to civic authorities, many child abuse cases have gone unreported in recent years, and the numbers have not reflected what experts believe is the general rate of incidences of child abuse in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox enclave. Suspected abusers are supported and victims are viewed as perpetrators, leaving molested children—and their families—in profoundly uncomfortable circumstances. In most instances, the plaintiffs end up bowing to the surrounding intimidation and dropping charges.

In such a climate, local authorities have demanded cases of sexual abuse be immediately passed on to the requisite governmental arm. But in an interview with the Forward last week, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of Agudath Israel, a leading ultra-Orthodox advocacy group, said that even if the government mandates certain individuals—social workers and psychologists—to report allegations to authorities, such mental health professionals will still need to acquire validation from an expert rabbi before reporting.

If government officials are upset with the ultra-Orthodox leaders as a result of such a policy, “oh, well,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, the Forward reported, citing an interview it held with the AIA chief at his Manhattan headquarters on May 21.

Rabbi Zwiebel’s comment reflects how the ongoing debate between the ultra-Orthodox community and the government has evolved into one concerning the interaction between Church and State. Agudath Israel claims its policy of rabbinical review is consistent with the law, as “mandated reporters” require “reasonable suspicion” to report any such allegations. But “reasonable suspicion” is loosely defined in New York State guidelines, according to the Forward, where a “[valid] suspicion can be as simple as distrusting an explanation for an injury.”

Rabbi Zwiebel thus conceded that in some instances, the rabbinical oversight might conflict with law enforcement guidelines. “You may have some cases where it’s going to take some time [for rabbis]” to evaluate claims regarding sex abuse, leaving “the DA [unhappy],” he said. But Rabbi Zwiebel affirmed that his first priority was to maintain the “the weight of rabbinic authority in the world today.”

“We’re not going to compromise our essence and our integrity because we are nervous about a relationship that may be damaged with a government leader,” he said.

The reason for the strict enforcement of the rabbinical oversight over any claims pertaining to child molestation derives from the tight-knit nature of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities and the powerful stigma associated with child molesters, especially in those neighborhoods. Sexual abuse, and its disclosure in the public domain, can ruin anybody’s reputation, but carries even greater repercussions in the ultra-Orthodox realm.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an Israeli-based scholar who is widely esteemed in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, issued an edict last year in which he explained precisely the predicament rabbinical authorities find themselves in when learning of child molestation charges. By faithfully adhering to governmental recommendations—and sometimes, obligations—reporters may occasionally put a leading religious figure in “a situation where he would rather be dead than alive,” strictly based on the allegation of a “bitter” student. With so much at stake, Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) chiefs cannot help but to take their own precautions.

To separate the authentic abuse claims from the fabrications, rabbis or prescribed social workers need to be attuned to “certain subtle [signs] in a child that show whether the child is fantasizing,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of communications. “[The vetting process] may require some level of nuance and investigation [by a rabbi] that go beyond the mere allegation.”

But it remains to be seen whether state and district officials will allow rabbis to conduct investigations uninterruptedly.

Last Wednesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said he would push for legislation obligating rabbis to notify civic authorities immediately after learning of any abuse charges. As of 2010, according to the Times, 26 states order clergy to report sexual abuse. Efforts to install similar legislation in New York since 2003 have failed, but Hynes expressed hope he would be able to strike a deal with Catholic and Orthodox protestors that would balance the demands of Jewish law with the concerns of law enforcement.

“This thing has become a very, very important issue, and the question is, how do you deal with it?” Hynes said in a telephone interview last Wednesday, according to the Times.