When a Beloved Rabbi Is Also a Child Abuser

Denial is often the Jewish Orthodox community’s first impulse when we hear about abuse committed by rabbis. Why abuse cover-ups happen– and how we can work to prevent them in the future.

Stacey Klein
Stacey Klein
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Stacey Klein
Stacey Klein

A few years ago, I worked with an adolescent boy who had been sexually abused as a child. As part of his therapy and to help him work through the immense shame, self-blame, rage and confusion he felt, we wrote down together his story - what had happened. As we were finishing I asked, “Do you have any questions for me about what happened to you?” He said, “Yes. Why did this happen to me?” I was at a loss for words.

As a psychotherapist who works with traumatized children, I feel profoundly powerless and sad every time I sit with a child who has to face the story of his/her betrayal. How do you explain to a child the depth of the pathology of the perpetrators who shattered his childhood? Or help him believe that not all adults in his life will fail him and that intimacy with the right people is worthwhile?

Yet I know that, in some ways, this was a lucky child, one whose parents heard him and got him help. Many were not so lucky. At Yeshiva University, the adults who failed the children in their care were teachers, rabbis. A lawsuit and complaint filed last week by victims of abuse at YU’s Manhattan High School for Boys, alleges that trusted YU leaders covered up, and thus enabled, horrific abuse for decades, despite repeated requests for help and protection by victims and their families.

Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, having attended YU, embracing its values and practicing as a psychotherapist in the Orthodox community, I have struggled to grasp why cover-ups happen and, particularly, how people can stand by and allow abuse to flourish. I believe the answer lies in understanding how people cope in the face of shocking, traumatic information.

When we hear that a child has been abused - especially when the accused is a respected rabbi—our first impulse is often denial. This defense mechanism, identified by Anna Freud, protects us from feeling powerlessness and distress in the face of overwhelmingly painful information. Even parents of victims may initially have this urge to deny a child’s abuse, to avoid devastation and self-blame.

Consider this: How might it feel for you to learn that a close friend was accused of sex crimes against a child? You would be shocked and might have an inclination to defend him/her, at least initially. But then what? Would you ignore the information about his harm to children? If so, what might motivate you to do so? What would it take for you to open your heart and imagine an adolescent boy being brutalized by a trusted adult? Would it have to happen to your child in order for you to connect with the abject terror of this act to a child?

Rabbis and administrators at YU may have felt an impulse to deny allegations against abusers who were also their colleagues. But, as spiritual leaders and educators, they had a moral obligation to investigate reports, which victims allege they repeatedly ignored. Their persistent denial turned innocent boys with great potential into deeply wounded men; this resulted in some leaving their faith, others attempting suicide and/or requiring lifelong psychiatric care. This obligation to acknowledge abuse includes current YU leaders who were approached by victims in recent years and not only did not act until their hand was forced by the Forward’s breaking story, but repeatedly ignored victims’ requests for a response.

Denial is a normal process that evolves through childhood as we mature and learn to make sense of reality. But when a child’s wellbeing is at stake and adults deny and obstruct truth, the impact on children is devastating. We put the rabbi and the institution before the child. We put our own discomfort or agendas ahead of the destruction of a child's whole world. We use arguments such as: “You have to understand, they didn’t know much in those days.” or “Well, it was only wrestling,” or: “It was in the past. Why should that be the current YU administration's issue now?” Our minds create one excuse after another, or blame the victim, in an effort to preserve the goodness in a respected person or institution - or as we have been seeing lately with members of the Orthodox Rabbinate, to preserve their established network of friends.

What motivates the denial? Some leaders have a dangerous inability to differentiate between compassion for a perpetrator’s struggles and excusing their criminal behaviors. Others deny allegations because they deny their own abuse histories or fear that their own indiscretions, sexual or otherwise, could be revealed. For instance, there have been suggestions that several rabbis who still defend a convicted Orthodox child abuser and rabbi were themselves abused by him. Many are protecting their friends and their networks or an institution. Regardless of the reasons, all of these motivations reflect profoundly disturbing gaps in empathy and leadership.

When the story of alleged abuse at YU broke, the Chancellor, Dr. Norman Lamm excused his failures to report allegations by saying, “It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.” Not destroying a rabbi’s reputation trumped saving hundreds of children from harm.

In Judeo-Christian communities, an important factor to consider is the desperation many of us feel to be “good” and do the “right thing” in “God’s eyes” and in the eyes of others. This urgency can lead to a phobia of anything deemed “bad,” leading us to exclude anything that threatens the image we wish to hold for ourselves or our people. Our compassion for our children gets lost if we act from the fear about how things might “look” and a desire to preserve reputations.

Ironically, by denying our darker sides, we actually become our fears and avoid facing all of who we are: imperfect beings. Trying to live within rigid parameters such as, “I am only a good person or “Rabbis are above reproach!” forces what Carl Jung called “the shadow” and what the Kabbalah calls “Sitra Achra”—the other side— to always backfire on us.

How can we heal our community? By heightening awareness of how denial works and learning to slow down and listen with the most open of hearts when there are allegations. This means we commit to allowing all that we experience within ourselves and towards others when we hear shocking news, possibly noting an initial impulse to deny, even intense discomfort and confusion, but always prioritizing our responsibility to the innocent children entrusted to our care.

We can also heal by accepting that everyone, ourselves included, falls into the grey zone of having both good and bad traits. (This can be particularly challenging in religious communities if members believe that God, too, only sees in black and white.) Someone can be a beloved rabbi and a child molester. Someone can be a respected leader who errs in his choices and requires pressure from his community to do the right thing. We have a difficult time grasping the “and” because it leaves us unable to resolve our wish to put people neatly into categories of “good” or “bad.” We have to instead, hold the space for our discomfort while maintaining the need for accountability for those who have may have committed crimes.

Lastly, for the sake of our beloved children, we must demand more of our future leaders - that they have the capacity for self-reflection, humility and compassion first and foremost for the terror of the sexually abused child.

Stacey Klein, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan specializing in the treatment of anxiety, OCD and child trauma, and she blogs at "Is There Life After Therapy?" Follow her on Twitter @StaceyKleinLCSW

Yeshiva University's David H. Zysman Hall.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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