By Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiah Ruchani (Spiritual Adviser) at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University
(reproduced with permission of Rabbi Blau and David Morris from a 2009 posting on the blog, Tzedek-Tzedek (Beith Shemesh, Israel).
My experience is with the Orthodox community in America but from what I have heard the situation in Israel is similar. As in many other personal areas, Orthodox Jews, when they are informed about abuse, instinctively turn to their rabbis. Unfortunately the rabbis (with the exception of young rabbis recently trained in modern Orthodox rabbinical schools) have no training and are not equipped to evaluate the accusations. When the accusations are about other Orthodox rabbis they assume that such behavior is impossible. While it is true that most abuse takes place within families, teachers have access to many potential victims and even a small number guilty can molest hundreds of children.
Our assumption that observance creates better people makes it difficult to believe that the abuse has happened, and if it did, then the abuser was someone not religious and certainly not a Torah teacher. Halakhic standards of proof are essentially impossible to achieve, as the victims are children and women who are ineligible to be witnesses. The shame associated with being violated in the Orthodox world also promotes the notion that people should not go public. Rabbis, even when suspicious that molestation has occurred, will usually advise silence to protect the family’s good name.
Batei Din in our times are not effective in dealing with criminal behavior. Lacking the investigative arm of the police and having restrictive standards of testimony they can not establish guilt. When the culprit is charismatic, he can often get protégés who feel indebted to him to lie to the Beis Din. It takes years before those who have been abused as youngsters to openly face their abuser.
The desire to protect the image of the community from an outside seen as basically hostile, both prevents going to authorities or media and turns the whistleblowers into the perpetrators. There is a perverted sense of Chillul Hashem that places the blame, not on those whose behavior mocks their external look of piety, but places it instead on those who unmask them.
When the issue becomes protecting the role of the rabbinate rather then stopping abuse, defensive articles are written, but children are not protected. In America, there is a growing awareness that no community is spared from having abusers in its midst. Orthodox mental health professionals have prepared materials to help children and their parents recognize signs of abuse which are being used. The taboo of calling the police (mesira) is slowly being replaced by following the pesak of almost all the gedolim that abusers are ongoing dangers and that secular authorities must be informed.