In My Own Words: Paying the price, even years later

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

Almost everyone seems to agree that child abuse is wrong. Unfortunately, in the past, religious organizations often sought to protect the offenders from being punished for their actions. Some even suggested the child must be lying or mistaken because no priest/rabbi/minister/teacher would ever perform those actions. Offenders were allowed to retain their positions or moved to different areas of the country, usually without warning people that the person was potentially dangerous. I’m not just speaking about the Catholic Church, although its problems have received the most headlines. The same thing has happened in Jewish day schools, camps and yeshivot. This included students and their parents being pressured to keep quiet, to not disturb the status quo or report abuse to the police.
With the recent passing of the Child Victims’ Act in New York state, the statute of limitation, particularly for civil suits, has been extended. That means that those who were abused decades ago now can have their day in court. They may not be able to put someone in jail, but they can make the schools, camps, etc., pay for ignoring the predators in their midst. They can even sue the abuser themselves.
Unfortunately, some Jewish organizations opposed the bill. Their worry is the impact these actions might have on their finances if they are sued by those who were abused. That makes me wonder if they’re worried because they know that abuse occurred that was overlooked or ignored by their organizations. Do they fear that their refusal to deal with these problems may be exposed? Or that their lack of compassion and understanding for abused children will be revealed?
While these groups pay lip service to the suffering of the abused, they believe the survival of their organizations are more important than what happened to any particular individual. They suggest that the abuse was horrible, but don’t want to accept any moral or financial responsibility for what occurred. In fact, publically opposing the Child Victims’ Act may influence community members since it suggests that anyone putting forth such a lawsuit has no concern for the greater good of the community.
How worthwhile, though, is an organization that ignores the needs of those in its care? If it refuses to acknowledge that rabbis, leaders and teachers – no matter how learned – can still do horrific things? The sanctity, the holiness, that is attributed to those positions makes it even easier to abuse those who are the most vulnerable.
A recent article in The Jewish Week suggests that most of the lawsuits will be against individual predators, rather than schools and camps. But, if a school knowingly allowed a predator to continue abusing students, then it should suffer the financial and social repercussions – even if it goes out of business. That will serve as a lesson to future generations: protect the innocent, rather than those who prey on them.