Will Motty Borger’s Suicide Make Any Difference?
Motty & Mali Borger had been married for just two days when Motti “fell” from a seventh-floor balcony at the Avenue Plaza Hotel on
13th Avenue at 47th Street in . Brooklyn, NY
It is reported that Motty had disclosed to his new bride that he was a victim of sex abuse, and that when she was asleep, he went to the balcony and threw himself off.
I have no idea as to the veracity of the reports about the background to the Motty Borger case. We should clearly leave the investigation to the police and relevant authorities, while encouraging anyone with information related to the case to report it immediately to the police.
What is certain, is that the effects of child-abuse often have long term impact upon the victims/survivors, resulting in severe psychological, psychiatric and physical illness even decades later; and there are many cases in which abuse victims have tragically resorted to suicide.
Indeed there is initial research which indicates that the abuse as a child even results in genetic changes which results in this increased propensity for suicide.
In addition to the ‘regular’ linkage between abuse and suicide, victims of abuse in the Jewish orthodox community face additional pressures and trauma.
An important article was written since Motty’s tragedy, by Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz and Dr Benzion Twerski, which encourages abuse victims/survivors to seek therapeutic help and intervention. Effectively, a call for past victims to come out-of-the-closet and seek professional help.
While absolutely true, this article is confined to advising past victims to seek out therapy; it does not touch on the related and still contentious issue of victims reporting child abuse cases to the state authorities. An especially severe problem in Jewish orthodox communities.
Orthodox children who have been sexually abused are more likely to lack the ‘vocabulary’ (not just literally the words, but also the concepts) to express to an adult what has happened to them - than the equivalent movie-watching, internet-viewing non-orthodox kids. In particular, pedophilia is a concept that is unlikely to have been explained to an orthodox child, nor the blamelessness of a pedophile’s victims. An overwhelming emotional and moral confusion can numb child sex abuse victims, literally, for decades – indeed the majority of victims never disclose.
And if the child does report to an adult, such as their parent or teacher, that orthodox adult is, unfortunately, less likely to take such a complaint from a child sufficiently seriously – as awareness of the nature and consequences of child abuse is still relatively scarce. The adults are less likely to believe their child, or if they do, their concerns about the reputation of the child (shidduch) and of the child’s family (shainda), the presumed saintliness of the alleged perpetrator (who is usually a close acquaintance of the victim, and a member of the same orthodox community), and a reticence to disclose any ‘private’ or sexual matters, even at the best of times – will all be factors in not reporting the child’s claims further.
And even if the adult does understand and take the child’s claims seriously, and report the allegation onwards, orthodox adults will habitually report the matter to their rabbi, rather than directly to the police.
Perhaps the leading halachik authority for Chareidi ultra-orthodox Jews, Rav Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, issued a ground breaking psak (legal opinion) in 2003/5764. This psak required that rabbonim first ascertain the veracity of the claims of abuse. The psak says that if there is halachik proof that the claims are indeed true, and that the perpetrator is uncontrollable from assaulting others in future, then the matter should be referred to the police.
However, if there are not ‘reglaim ledavar’ (grounds for suspicion) and the allegations are a figment of the alleged victim’s imagination, then the case should not be passed over to the authorities/police; Rav Elyashiv cautions that reporting someone to the police can put the alleged perpetrator in a position of “chosing death over life”.
(A particularly ironic conclusion in light of Motty’s fate).
The Rav Elyashiv psak has been helpful in highlighting to rabbonim and communities, the need for proven cases of pedophilia to be referred on to the police/state authorities. Whereas, for generations, such a handing-over of Jews to gentiles/secular authorities was forbidden as “masira” (betrayal).
However, this psak clearly places the religious authorities in the driving seat to decide where on the scale between “no grounds for suspicion” (which should not be reported) to “halachik proof” that the perpetrator is known to be guilty and is not controllable in future (which does require reporting). There is a gapingly wide range of grey between these two cases – where most child abuse allegations are situated.
Rabbonim have therefore been given a highly inappropriate, illegal, task and responsibility of investigating allegations of pedophilia.
Rabbonim have been required to address allegations of child abuse, apparently as if it were an alleged civil offense (along with business law, marital and ritual matters – areas in which Batei Din/Rabbinical Courts, are fully qualified and entitled to rule), rather than as an allegation of criminal assault (such as murder or rape – which no responsible Bet Din would/should involve themselves in).
Rabbonim therefore claim competence, jurisdiction and control of a criminal investigation, including interviewing the parties, while applying halachik concepts of witnesses (for example, as a generality, neither children nor women are valid witnesses in a Bet Din/Rabbinical Court, and two valid witnesses are required as proof of an event) in order to determine the guilt/innocence of the alleged perpetrator.
Furthermore, Rabbonim balance a wider range of interests than solely the rooting out of the guilty and protection of their victims; they also have wider community interests to protect and their concerns about damage control can weigh heavily against the pure pursuit of justice.
In practice, Rav Elyashiv’s psak, while a break-through in requiring some Jewish pedophiles to be ‘handed over’ by rabbonim to the state authorities, is otherwise not practically helpful to those working with child abuse cases.
In order to bridge this gap between this halachik position , on the one hand, and the statutory reporting requirements (whereby a suspicion of child abuse is legally required to be reported to the police/authorities – and not to do so is a felony) together with the ethical standards of professional conduct (which prohibit involvement in a child abuse accusation prior to mandatory reporting), on the other, there have been various attempts to create bridging arrangements.
, some “Task Forces” have been established, or are in the process of being established, in some orthodox communities, whose job is to liaise between the community leadership and the state authorities in cases of alleged child abuse. USA
Here in Ramat Bet Shemesh, there has been a first-ever meeting between local rabbonim and the police and state child protection services, to attempt to establish cooperation on child abuse allegations.
Recently, there are an increasing number of rabbonim (such as Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Yakov Blau and Rav Chaim Soloveichik), who have publicly stated that this offense needs to be re-categorised by rabbonim as criminal assault, and so the standard response to any allegations of child abuse must be to immediately refer to the state authorities - who are the sole legally authorized and qualified party to investigate such complaints; to judge, convict and sentence criminals; and to subsequently enforce tracking, therapy and supervision of post-incarcerated pedophiles.
“In instances of sexual abuse of children, students, campers etc., or spousal abuse… The Jewish community does not have the ability to investigate these types of cases. Wherever there are raglayim ladavar that there seems to be a problem, the proper government agencies should be contacted to investigate.” Rabbi Hershel Schachter, 2007.
Only the police can investigate crime suspects and take pedophiles off our streets.
In addition to the law-and-order role of the police, the process of reporting to police/authorities also enables professional therapists to legally and ethically administer the therapy which Rabbi Horowitz and Dr Twerski have called for. Furthermore, in most states, victims of child abuse are also entitled to state subsidized therapy, which can make the costs of this critical therapy affordable to all victims.
Furthermore, with the active encouragement, blessing and support of their rabbi and community, immediately reporting child abuse allegations to the appropriate authorities would give validation to the traumatized child – a critical part of the healing process.
Unfortunately it has sometimes been the opposite response, of rejection and even harassment of child abuse victims and those who aid them, by their own communities, which generates a second trauma for the victim, and which, tragically, increases the chances of future suicides.
Veyehi zichron baruch. May Motty’s memory be for a blessing.