August 14, 2013
The Torah and child sexual abuse
Everything we build and teach our children, all our investments and dedication to good, all our moral standards, our entire education system, can be wiped out in one fell swoop when we or our children are violated.
The first of all ethical and Torah axioms must be stated at the outset: No one has a right to in any way violate in any way the body or soul of another human being. Indeed, we don’t even have the right to mutilate our own bodies, because your body does not belong to you; it is “Divine property.”
No crime is worse that assaulting another’s dignity — which is compared to the dignity of G-d Himself, being that every person was created in the Divine Image. Even a hanged murderer must not be defiled and his body not left to hang overnight because it reflects the Divine Image. How much more so — infinitely more so — regarding a live person and innocent child.
Abuse, in any form or shape, physical, psychological, verbal, emotional or sexual, is above all a violent crime — a terrible crime. Abusing another (even if it’s intangible) is no different than taking a weapon and beating someone to a pulp. And because of its terrible long-term effects, the crime is that much worse.
The next question is this: What are our obligations as parents, teachers, writers, Web site editors or just plain adult citizens when it comes to abuse?
On one hand, we are talking about protecting innocent people from criminal predators, which clearly is a major obligation and a priority concern. On the other hand, we do have laws prohibiting embarrassing people (even criminals) in public, always hopeful, allowing people to correct their ways. We have laws about avoiding gossip and speaking ill about others (lashon harah), and not feeding into the base instinct of “talking about others” or “mob mentality” witch-hunting expeditions.
We have several obligations when we see or know about a crime, as well as obligations to prevent further crimes:
1) A witness to a crime who does not testify “must bear his guilt” (Leviticus 5:1).
2) “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), which includes the obligation to warn someone from a danger we are aware of. If you see someone walking down the street and you know that farther down the block there is an uncovered pit in the ground or a man with a gun, you are obligated to warn him. If we are aware of a predator, we must do everything possible to protect people from him.
3) “Do not stand still over your neighbor’s blood (when your neighbor’s life is in danger)” (Leviticus 19:16). It’s interesting to note that this commandment follows (in the same verse) “do not go around as a gossiper among your people,” suggesting that gossip is an issue only when no life is in danger. But if a life is in danger, then “do not stand still” even if means speaking about it in public.
4) “You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). If one does not admonish, then he is responsible for the other’s sin (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive 205; see Shabbat 54b. 119b). Although at the outset rebuke must be done “in private, kindly and gently,” not to embarrass him publicly (Arkhin 16b; Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative 305), but if it doesn’t help, the obligation is to admonish him in public (Rambam Deos 6:8. Shulchan Aruch HaRav Hilchos Onaah v’Gneivas Daas 30).
This is true even about a crime that does not affect other people. All the care taken about public shame is because the crime does not affect the public. And even then, there are situations where the admonishment must be done publicly. By contrast, in our discussion about abuse, which affects others, all these restrictions do not apply: Embarrassment of a criminal is never an excuse or a reason to put anyone else in potential danger.
Based on the above, I would submit the following criteria to determine whether to publish and publicize the name of a molester:
1) The abuse must be established without a shred of doubt. Because just as we must protect the potential victims of abuse, we also are obligated to protect the reputations of the innocent, and not wrongly accuse anyone without evidence or witnesses.
2) Publicizing the fact will serve as a deterrent or even possible deterrent of further crimes, or will warn and protect possible future victims. If that is true, then lashon harah does not apply. It would be the equivalent of saying that it is lashon harah to warn someone of a weapon-wielding criminal who may cause harm.
3) Even if a name is not available to be publicized, the issue of abuse itself must be addressed for the same reasons stated: to make the public aware of the dangers, to protect innocent children.
The argument that publicity will give the community a “bad name” and “why wash our dirty laundry in public?” does not supersede the obligation to protect the innocent from being hurt.
Anyone who suggests that abuse must be overlooked, because (as one person told me) it “happens all the time” and “by many people, including our leaders,” or for any other reasons — is not different from ignoring any other crime, and is in itself a grave crime.
One could even argue that the greatest “kiddush HaShem” (sanctifying God’s name) is when a Torah-based community demonstrates that it doesn’t just mechanically follow the laws or isn’t merely concerned with reputations, but that it sets and demands the highest standard of accountability among its citizens, and invests the greatest possible measures to protect its children from predators, create trust and absolutely will not tolerate any breach or abuse. That the greatest sin of all is ignoring or minimizing crimes being perpetrated against our most innocent and vulnerable members: our children.
In conclusion: The bottom line in all matters regarding abuse is one and only one thing: protecting the innocent. Not the reputation of an individual, not the reputation of the community, not anything but the welfare of our children. In every given case, whether to publicize, whether to take any other action, the question that must be asked is this: What is best for the victims? Will or can this action help prevent someone from being hurt or not? If the answer is yes or even maybe yes, then the action should be taken.
The crisis has reached a boiling point where it must be addressed and brought to the attention of the public to make everyone aware of the dangers, the long-term consequences and the zero-tolerance policy that needs to be applied to every form of abuse.
Anything less would be irresponsible, immoral and, yes, in some way complicit.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the author of the best-selling book “Toward a Meaningful Life.” He heads The Meaningful Life Center (meaningfullife.com), in Manhattan, N.Y., which bridges the secular and the spiritual through a wide variety of live and on-line programming.