Four Washington-area Orthodox rabbis have signed a proclamation condemning the Orthodox world’s silence over child sexual abuse, placing them among 300 Orthodox rabbis from the United States, Israel and Europe to sign the recent statement.
“Tragic suicides committed as a direct result of child sexual abuse, as well as other physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual consequences suffered by innocents” were cited as the cause for the Aug. 25 letter.
The document does not identify specific abuse instances or suicides.
“We decry the use of Jewish law or the invocation of communal interests as a tool to silence victims or witnesses from reporting abuse,” the proclamation states. “Regardless of the standing of the abuser, accusers and their family members must be treated in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner so that they feel safe and can therefore speak frankly and fully. This is necessary for them to receive suitable therapeutic support, and in order to facilitate proper investigation and pursuit of justice. Shunning or encouraging social ostracism of victims, their families, or reporters is forbidden.”
The signatories include members of the Orthodox Union, Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshiva University.
They called upon Orthodox institutions to implement reforms, including:
• More thorough screening for hiring employees;
• Including more adults in rooms with children as safeguards;
• Teaching children what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate adult behavior;
• Setting up a committee within institutions to oversee policy development and implementation;
• Alerting members of a community of known sex offenders when they move in.
Rabbi Jack Bieler, who until 2015 led Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, was one of the four local rabbis to sign the proclamation.
He said the statement, which spells out specific proposals, could have an impact on Orthodox Jews and their institutions. But, he said, the “devils is in the details.”
“Many of these changes, logistically, are costly and require manpower,” he said. “And volunteer organizations have a very narrow bottom line, and for them to donate portions of their budgets is not simple. On the other hand, by having a large number of people make this statement,” the community will take action.
Bieler said that Orthodox Jewish communities sometimes have ignored child abuse. But, “I don’t think you can talk about the Orthodox community in a monolithic sense,” he said. “There are many different groups within the Orthodox community that have addressed this in different ways. The general climate has made it acceptable and understandable that these things have to be talked about and changes have to be made to prevent this.”
The rabbis’ statement also condemned attempts to ignore or silence abuse victims and witnesses.
Those suspecting sexual abuse do not need to seek rabbinic approval before contacting civil authorities, the proclamation states.
“We condemn attempts to ignore allegations of child sexual abuse. These efforts are harmful, contrary to Jewish law, and immoral,” it said. “The reporting of reasonable suspicions of all forms of child abuse and neglect directly and promptly to the civil authorities is a requirement of Jewish law.”
Rabbi Yitzhok Merkin, headmaster of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring was not a signatory. But having reviewed the proposed reforms, the school “supports it 100 percent.”
“It underscores one’s values that this is really significant and when you have a written document it has to be followed appropriately,” he said. “If you have a great number of strong personalities who are well respected in the community, I think that makes it clear that it’s not appropriate to deny things.”
Merkin said that to comply with state and federal laws, the yeshiva has an ombudsman who is unaffiliated with the school to investigate complaints.