Abuse Prevention: How to Deal with Abuse Allegations or Suspicions
The recent allegations of abuse against a prolific Israeli writer of children’s books, and the events that followed, have shaken up our community. Our thoughts are with all victims of abuse, current and past. We pray that G-d give them the strength to heal.
At the same time, we as a community must increase our efforts to prevent abuse. At Jewish Home, we spoke with a couple local rabbis and mental health professionals to receive some clear guidance on abuse prevention. This week, Rabbi Avrohom Union, Rabbinic Administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California, addresses reporting suspected abuse. We hope to continue this conversation in the next issue with more guidance on how to spot dangerous and abusive behavior.
Obligation to speak up
“The halacha is quite clear… It is an absolute obligation to educate our children that if something occurs to them that makes them uncomfortable, they must run to a responsible party to report it,” says Rabbi Union. “To report that something has occurred to you, or you are worried about something occurring, is not a violation of hilchos lashon hara. Halachically, it is an absolute obligation on us to protect our children, to protect the innocent. This is true even with adults, to speak up if something not right is happening.”
How to speak up
If abuse or any boundary violation has occurred, the goal is to stop the perpetrator and prevent further abuse. Therefore, the appropriate course of action depends on the best way to reach that goal.
“When you see a clear and present danger, of course, you go to the police,” says Rabbi Union. In the case where a criminal offense has been committed and where the victim is able and willing to testify against the perpetrator, going directly to the police would put the perpetrator behind bars and away from potential victims.
However, it is not always possible to file a police report that can be legally acted upon. Rabbi Union shares, “Many times, in my limited experience, and I believe in the experience of many who’ve had to deal with these problems, you don’t have the ability to file a report. You need witnesses to come forward. Very sadly, people are beginning to understand how difficult it is for victims to come forward. Then the police can’t do very much.” Rabbi Union adds that sometimes a police report might even make things worse. “The perpetrator will often deny everything. And we’ve seen that in recent news events as well. They deny everything and you have nothing to make it stick… If they don’t have forensic evidence, then the case gets closed.” And the abuser will continue abusing, while doing a better job at covering his tracks.
Therefore, as much as we’d like to leave this unpleasant task to the police, our community “needs to be proactive in its self-protection,” says Rabbi Union. We need to be vigilant and pay attention to red flags when it comes to people who are in close contact with our children.
When abuse involves a minor, another place to turn to is Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). But, just as with the police, the abuse allegations need to be substantiated in order to lead to appropriate action. “Anyone can call up DCFS and make a report – against a teacher or someone else – but they have to have some basis to act on it,” says Rabbi Union.
What do we do if our child reports or we notice something suspicious but not criminal? Rabbi Union suggests speaking to a responsible Rav or Rebbetzin, or a Beis Din, or a therapist who is familiar with community affairs. He emphasizes that it’s important to speak to somebody who can and will do something about our concerns. It’s not helpful to discuss our suspicions on social media or a local community chat. It’s also not helpful to speak to anyone who dismisses our concerns. “Whoever you speak to,” advises Rabbi Union, “ask, ‘Will you get back to me?’” We want to make sure that the situation is being take care of by a responsible party.
There are situations when a Rav or Rebbetzin can do more than the police. “They can get a warning to people who need to have a warning, and get action to be taken to get help for someone who needs to get help, and a whole array of other things that can and might be done in different situations,” says Rabbi Union.
Moreover, a therapist is a mandated reporter by law, which means that they will know what needs to be reported to the authorities and how to do it. In some states, clergy are also mandated reporters. Therefore, when in doubt, consulting a knowledgeable therapist can help clarify the situation and lead to appropriate action.
Additionally, when victims are legally adults, the police may not be able to take action, even if there is a clear power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim. While not legally prosecutable, such situations are tremendously damaging to the victims. The community leadership should be made aware of them in order to take proper steps to prevent further abuse of power by the perpetrator.
Rabbi Union adds, “If we’re talking about protecting our community, the simplest thing in the world would be for us to say, ‘Leave the rabbis and rebbetzins alone! Call the police!’ You would have a very unsafe community because there is so much that the police cannot do. To assume that the police is going to be the solution for everything is misinformed. That’s not to say that one shouldn’t go to the police when situations call for going to the police.” But when there is no clear criminal case, speaking to a rabbi or mental health professional might prove more helpful in the long run.
What to do when the circumstances are not clear
Sometimes, we might observe or our child might report certain behavior, and we are unsure if it is cause for concern. When in doubt, there are professionals we can turn to who can help us out. “There are professionals with expertise particularly in assessment in this area,” says Rabbi Union. “You don’t have to go it alone and be the lone ranger. You don’t need to figure it out yourself. Go to someone responsible who knows more than you do and say, ‘This is what my child is reporting. Should I be concerned?’ And the experts will say, ‘Yes,’ ‘No, normal,’ or ‘Bring the child in. Let’s talk.’ There are steps to be taken, and you don’t have to feel, ‘How do I know this?’”
Rabbi Union explains that in terms of hilchos lashon hara, there is no problem speaking with such a professional, even if the parent is not quite sure what exactly occurred or if an allegation is true. “We are expected to act as if it might be true. That is, if there is a suspicion. What we are not allowed to do is to say, ‘Oh, this person did A, B, C, and D,’ because you don’t know that for a fact. But if I hear something disconcerting, I do have the right to say, ‘I’m concerned by so-and-so’s behavior with my child.’” Rabbi Union adds that even if the situation concerns someone else’s children, or even young adults, one should still speak to a professional, because there might be many reasons why the concerned parties themselves are not speaking up. “If you see something, say something,” he says.
Of course, it’s possible that we are overreacting. “Everyone right now is being hypervigilant because we’ve been so traumatized that any little thing might make us worried,” says Rabbi Union. Nevertheless, it’s better to be safe than sorry and speak to a responsible party who can assess whether there is cause for concern.
When should one go public with abuse allegations?
Unfortunately, there are cases of abuse where the only way to stop the perpetrator is to publicize their actions. This should be the last resort, explains Rabbi Union. However, if all of the above steps fail to bring results — if the perpetrator refuses to appear in Beis Din and there is not enough evidence for the police to get involved — the community must be warned. “Where we know that there is a danger or suspected danger, there is an absolute obligation. The Rambam is black on white, and this is the halacha, that if there is strong circumstantial basis, once we’ve established that a danger is presented by the individual, we have not only the right but the responsibility to go public with this information to prevent damage and casualties,” says Rabbi Union. “It is not only not lashon hara, but it’s a mitzvah [to publicize] and do whatever needs to be done.”
He adds, “You’ll ask, ‘But what about the family?’ The Rambam deals with that. The Rambam says you bring the mother of the offender, and you say, ‘Look at what you raised!’ Now, that’s pretty strong. But the point I want to bring out with that Rambam is, we don’t say, ‘But what about an innocent family? What about an innocent wife? Or husband?’ If we can’t protect by other means, then we do what needs to be done. We don’t need to do more than needs to be done, but we do what needs to be done.”
Rabbi Union adds a word of caution. Going public too early on in the process can be just as harmful as premature police reports. “There seems to be a naïve belief that somehow, if you can put something on a blog, or put it in the public eye, it will solve the problem. In the best case scenario, it’s likely to invite absolute denial and nothing positive. In the worst case scenario, it might drive the dangerous individual underground, to be more careful in covering their tracks… Whatever you do, it needs to be done with professionals, with people who have expertise.” Well-meaning amateurs can cause more harm than good. They can also be destroying lives of innocent people. Sometimes people are falsely accused of abuse, especially in divorce and custody battles, when abuse accusations are used as a weapon.
Compassion and support for the victims
Once abuse has occurred, our main priority, besides stopping the perpetrator, is to support the victims, says Rabbi Union. “[The victims] are suffering immensely, in ways that we cannot give voice to, can hardly describe the kind of Gehennom they can be put through as a result of molestation, abuse by authority figures. And again, it doesn’t have to be with minors. It can be incredibly damaging and traumatizing. So we need to first put our hearts and our feelings with the victims, whenever these incidents occur. These are the people we need to be first and foremost concerned about — protecting them and helping them to heal.”
Prevention is the best medicine
“The first thing we need to take home from all of this is that we need to do more to prevent [abuse],” says Rabbi Union. “To stop a perpetrator from going further – that’s a big mitzvah, but to stop it from happening – that’s a lot bigger. The priority has to be to try and prevent.”
How do we prevent abuse? Through education, says Rabbi Union. Both parents and children need to be educated about abuse and its warning signs. There are a lot of materials available today that convey the necessary information in child-friendly ways, in several languages, including Yiddish. In a future article, we plan to address the warning signs of abuse in more depth.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of our community are well-intentioned, good, fine, concerned Torah Jews,” says Rabbi Union. “Not perfect. But they don’t do terrible things. At the same time, there is an element – whether it’s out of illness or whether it’s evil – let Hashem decide that. There is a small element, but it shouldn’t cloud our perspective to think that that small element is a reflection of the community at large… The vast majority of people are wonderful. They are people you want to daven with, people you want to shop with, and people you want to share simchos with. In our trauma over disclosures that have upset all of us, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is not who we are as a community. But at the same time, who we are as a community can’t allow us to overlook that small number of people who are victimizing innocents in our community and do everything possible to put an end to this scourge.”