The Agudat Yisrael of America on Child Abuse

The special forum on child abuse at the recent Agudath Israel of America Convention in New York, has sparked a storm of controversy.

Bloggers such as UOJ, Failed Messiah, Daas Torah, as well as some mainstream press, have reported the bottom line of the forum to be that, in the case of a suspicion of child abuse, one must ask a rabbi for direction, including whether or not to report this to the non-Jewish authorities.

These writers have universally scorned and decried this, as breaking the law (where it conflicts with mandatory reporting) and endangering children (when the rabbi decides not to report, and the alleged offended goes on to harm more children).

There is exactly the same issue in Israel; even here in Ramat Bet Shemesh.
However, I believe it is helpful to divide this minefield topic in two.

  1. Is this an appropriate shailat rav?
  2. What should the rav respond to such a shaila?

Is it an appropriate shailat rav?

In many frum circles, a rabbi is a central character in a community.

In Chasidic culture, for example, the rebbe is the focal point and epicenter of the whole chasidus. It would be unthinkable to take such an important decision, "should I report a case of child abuse to the secular authorities?", without first consulting with the rebbe.

In litvak yeshivish circles, the community rabbi or rosh hayeshiva is also central, and there are few clear boundaries for what is or is not an appropriate shailo (question to a rabbi). Obviously questions regarding religious observance; but also questions about education, appropriate sources of parnassah, marital issues, and many other "hashkafik" issues are discussed with the rabbi.

The Aguda is reported to have instructed their followers (litvak yeshivish) to always ask their rabbi (actually, they specified "a rabbi who is an expert in this field") in the case of an allegation of child abuse.

In my own circles, dati leumi, there is a range of involvement the rabbi may have with members of the community. Some parishioners may solely ask 'religious' questions, regarding halachik observance, but would not ask automatically the rabbi about hashkafic issues (which school should I send my kids to? What army framework should my son serve in; what career path should I chose, etc). Others will feel comfortable discussing everything and anything with the rabbi, as life coach and mentor.

Although bloggers have been critical of the Aguda's instruction that their followers should as a rabbi, before reporting cases of child abuse to the authorities, I personally have no problem with frum people who ask their rabbi for guidance or even instruction about what to do in a case of suspected or known child abuse.

What should the rav respond to the shailo?

It is critical that the rabbi, who is asked, should know how to respond.

Unfortunately, thousands of children have paid an inestimable price in deep suffering, re-traumatisation, even suicides, due to some rabbonim 'dealing with', but actually grossly mishandling, cases of alleged child abuse.

I have seen victims and their families vilified, ridiculed, ostracized and their lives turned into living hells, due to rabbinical mishandling.

I have seen dangerous criminals with free unhindered access to the community's children, operating with rabbinical knowledge and even active protection.

I have seen material witnesses threatened, chased out of town, bribed and harassed, in order to interfere with justice – all with the active participation of some rabbis, even of the highest standing.

Against such a background of past criminality and recklessness, and so, so many victims, the recent moves by the Agudah can be seen as significant and positive steps.

The Aguda are openly discussing this topic, which was until recently taboo, and indeed was claimed to be a non-existent phenomenon in frum circles.

Through such newly open discussion, the public and rabbis in particular, can become better acquainted with the nature of child abuse; how to best protect our children; the natue of mandatory reporting according to secular law; and the range of halachik positions.

What is now needed, to make good on Agudah's "ask the rabbi" instruction, is a transparent, accountable protocol which Rabbonim are required to follow in the case of receiving an allegation of child abuse.

Of course this should comply with the legal requirements. The alternative is to place the rabbis and those who might follow them, on the wrong side of the law, and the inside of the bars.

The protocol should also detail the rabbis pastoral role in giving support and counsel to the victim and their family; protecting the victims, as necessary from backlash from the alleged perpetrator and his supporters in the community; referring the family to the social services, qualified therapists, child protection organizations, and others who can help them through their trauma.

There is surely also a role for the rabbis to assist the families of the alleged perpetrator, as they will also experience turmoil, trauma and confusion. The rabbis should direct them to the agencies who can assist them, and work to avoid lynch-type kangaroo-court "justice" from within the community – while not understating, excusing or denying the severity of the allegations.  

Many rabbis who I have worked with, do indeed prioritise the welfare of the victims, and the protection of other children, the promotion of a law-abiding community, and have shown tremendous personal courage and moral integrity in the face of hostilities leveled against them for this.  

I pray for the strength, success, deep caring and continuing guidance and wisdom of those remarkable and inspiring leaders.

I strongly encourage the Agudah to now move forward, to generate and impose publicly available guidelines/protocols, so that all rabbonim will be obligated and educated to act responsibly and sensitively when asked "my child has told me they were abused; rabbi, what should I do?".


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