The scandal of sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox communities — and how secular authorities enable same

Sexual abuse is a terrible thing, whenever and wherever it occurs. But combine it with religion, and it tends to be even more of a toxic brew. When the abuser enjoys an exalted status that is religiously derived, and then exploits his spiritual authority over members of his faith community by sexually assaulting them, the sense of shock and betrayal on the part of the victims can be spiritually and psychically shattering.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the victims and their families are often silenced and intimidated by the predator’s spiritual status, and that even if they report the abuse to religious authorities, more often than not the knee-jerk reaction of said authorities is to protect the abuser and assist him in covering up his crimes. Thus the extreme power disparities between predator and victim in these cases, and the secrecy and cover-ups surrounding the abuse, practically guarantee that the abuse will continue unabated.

The most recent example of this horrifying phenomenon that has come to light involves sexual abuse among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. In a groundbreaking series of stories, the New York Times has reported that, within ultra-Orthodox communities, sexual abuse victims and their families are frequently shunned, silenced, and stigmatized, in extraordinarily nasty ways. Here’s one disgusting but by no means atypical example:

The first shock came when Mordechai Jungreis learned that his mentally disabled teenage son was being molested in a Jewish ritual bathhouse in Brooklyn. The second came after Mr. Jungreis complained, and the man accused of the abuse was arrested.

Old friends started walking stonily past him and his family on the streets of Williamsburg. Their landlord kicked them out of their apartment. Anonymous messages filled their answering machine, cursing Mr. Jungreis for turning in a fellow Jew. And, he said, the mother of a child in a wheelchair confronted Mr. Jungreis’s mother-in-law, saying the same man had molested her son, and she “did not report this crime, so why did your son-in-law have to?”

It’s bad enough that the reactions within ultra-Orthodox communities can be so toxic. But when secular elected officials collaborate with religious authorities to discourage victims from coming forward and give special treatment to the accused, it rises to the level of a five-alarm public scandal. And that is exactly what is going on here.

As the Times documents, longtime Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes has acceded to demands from politically powerful ultra-Orthodox leaders that sexual abuse cases be covered up and that accused sexual predators in the ultra-Orthodox community be given special treatment. Among other things:

— Hynes has given tacit support to the demand by ultra-Orthodox leaders that adherents “report allegations of child sexual abuse to district attorneys or the police only if a rabbi first determined that the suspicions were credible.” The ultra-Orthodox leaders have demanded that even professionals who are mandated by law to report suspected abuse, such as teachers, social workers, and medical personnel, go to a rabbi first.

— Hynes has also “taken the highly unusual step” of “declining to publicize the names” of defendants in sexual abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community.

— In addition, his office has extended generous plea bargains to ultra-Orthodox defendants and enabled them to get off with unusually light sentences for their very serious crimes.

Fortunately, there has been growing criticism of D.A. Hynes’ handling of these sex abuse cases. Yesterday, a spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that Bloomberg

“completely disagrees” with Mr. Hynes’s decision to not object to the position of an influential ultra-Orthodox advocacy group on reporting allegations of child sexual abuse.

[Snip]

“Any abuse allegations should be brought to law enforcement, who are trained to assess their accuracy and act appropriately,” said a spokesman for the mayor, Marc LaVorgna.

The leading Democratic candidates for mayor have also strongly criticized the Brooklyn D.A.’s office for its handling of these cases. Let’s hope that this is more than lip service, and that actions are taken to ensure that sexual abuse cases in ultra-Orthodox community are pursued vigorously, that the victims are encouraged to come forward, and that the accused are not given special treatment.

Interestingly, the handling of sexual abuse cases is not the only area in which secular authorities have extended special, and grossly unjust, treatment to the growing and powerful ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. Last year, reports came to light that public buses in Orthodox neighborhoods were forcing women to ride in the back, a practice that, thankfully, has apparently ended.

But it does given one pause: if elected officials look the other way when it comes to sexual abuse among the ultra-Orthodox and until recently allowed them to practice blatant, Jim Crow-like discrimination on its public buses, in what other ways might secular authorities be giving this community special treatment ? Those of us who care about the separation between church and state, or even just basic justice and fairness, have very good reasons to be deeply concerned.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee