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Sexual Abuse Is Not Just A Catholic Problem

The Washington Post is following a story that will sound all too familiar to many Catholics: the sexual abuse of young children in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community. In the new documentary, Standing Silent, Phil Jacobs, himself a victim of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, has set out to chronicle the stories of similar victims in a community that saw 132 reports of child sexual abuse last year—nearly double the rate of the previous year.

This news is certainly shocking, but the most interesting parts of the story are the similarities to the Catholic abuse scandals of the past decade. In both cases, victims recounted difficulties in reporting the abuse to the authorities or even to other members of their own communities, who often refused to believe the allegations or discouraged victims from coming forward:

There are . . . cultural reasons for silence, stemming at least in part from a Jewish law known as “mesirah,” which forbids informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. The law is integral to a culture of self-protection rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism, according to Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser of Yeshiva University in New York.

Reporting sexual abuse first to a rabbi is the recommended protocol of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox umbrella group with an affiliated synagogue in Pikesville. The organization — whose influence in some Orthodox communities is similar to that of the Vatican among some Catholics, Blau says — issues opinions on policy matters.

Blau, whose efforts to hold the community accountable for sexual abuse are highlighted in the documentary, says the protocol endangers children. He draws a parallel with the Roman Catholic Church, where a pervasive culture of silence and denial made clergy unlikely to pass abuse accusations along to police.

When the Catholic sex abuse scandals first began to come to light, many commentators rushed to pillory the Church as an institution whose beliefs and practices were singularly responsible for creating a culture of abuse. As this story makes clear, pedophilia is not simply a Catholic problem; the problems associated with sexual abuse of children and the reporting of those crimes cannot be confined to one group or belief.

Nor is child sexual abuse a religious problem. Last year’s abuse and coverup scandal at Penn State, and the recent reports of widespread abuse at an L.A. elementary school, show many of the same hallmarks, from witnesses refusing to testify against a beloved authority figure to disbelief or denial from the broader community. Pedophilia is a human problem; it requires no religious dogma or institution to nurture it. Celibate priests, married rabbis and beloved coaches: nobody has an exemption.


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  • Bob

    Oh so true. Fundamentalist preachers do it too, as do many other religions. But, oh so true is the fact that the Catholic clergy were child molesters of the first order, many of them did it for generations. And the hierarchy attempted to cover it up. No other institution has been so involved with child sexual abuse as the Catholic Church.

  • Andrew Allison

    As WRM is surely aware, the problem is not confined to priests (c.f. the frequency of Scoutmaster misbehavior while I was growing up in Jolly Olde and the recent revelations regarding abuse in the Los Angeles schools). Unhappily, it seems that the result of giving men authority over children is rather predictable. Is the answer perhaps that in any such environment the children be provided with, and encouraged to use, a hotline (outside the chain of command) to report inappropriate contact?

  • Anthony

    “Pedophilia is a human problem; it requires no religious dogma or institution to nurture it. Celibate priests, married rabbis and beloved coaches: nobody has an exemption.”

    Now, WRM how can we as a country/community ceaselessly mitigate (if not eliminate) problems associated with sexual abuse of children? Children can only be protected by concerned adults valuing the greater social trust that binds generations…

  • Cunctator

    I would be very curious to know if in these other communities, as in the case of the RC Church child abuse scandal, the majority of victims are boys. Were that the case, then the problem is not just the fact of abuse taking place (as if that were not a sufficient cause for very serious action) but one needs to acknowledge and address the type of people committing the abuse.

  • Alethea

    The vast majority of children sexually abused by “priests” were male, and post-pubescent. So most of the offenders were not pedophiles. Please use the proper terminology. In addition, there is much evidence that gay men, and men hoping to destroy the church….infiltrated the seminaries under the guise of wanting to be priests, and with the quiet permission of Vatican Two authority. These were the men who sexually abused children –not real priests.

  • dearieme

    It’s the excuses I find hard to bear: “forbids informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities… rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism”; “…not real priests”.

  • Mariana

    Why is the Church scandal continuously framed in terms of pedophilia? Pedophilia involves sexual conduct with prepubescent children. Yet upwards of 90% of the cases in the recent Church abuse scandal involved pubescent boys between the ages of 11 and 16. This is sexual predation that cannot properly be called pedophilia.

  • SC Mike

    Regarding Alethea’s comment – For two and one-half years during the 1960s I attended a Roman Catholic seminary where the administration maintained a constant vigil against homosexual activity; anyone found engaged in such activity was immediately expelled. From what I could tell all my classmates were heterosexual but celibate; I saw no indication of any sort of sexual activity.

    At some point during the 1970s declining admissions prompted some seminaries to admit openly gay candidates. The rationale was simply that the main point was celibacy, so as long as the priest was chaste, sexual orientation did not matter. Apparently supervision at some seminaries at various times was less than what had been the rule, or so it’s been alleged by those who view the priest pederasty scandal as having its roots in these changes in admission and supervision standards. The notion that sin can be forgiven, counseling can work wonders, and the like only allowed the scandal to go unnoticed and spread.

    The Boy Scouts’ policy against openly gay leaders is merely that organization’s attempt to protect children by formally recognizing the weakness of the flesh, something the Catholics hierarchy remembered much too late.

    I severed my participation with Scouting when I acknowledged to myself that I was atheist and no longer met their standards for membership. I therefore do not understand why gays take offense at the BSA’s stance.

  • RSC

    SC Mike @ 8, I’ve often found that the people most up in arms about “pedophile” priests have no problem at all with gay Scoutmasters.

  • SC Mike

    # 9. RSC –
    Interesting remark, I would have thought otherwise, but I’ve been away from Scouting for some time.

    Scouting is not about sex, but about service, so the whole issue of sexual orientation is misplaced to the extent that it’s something that’s not pertinent until it arises, and at that point it is dealt with according to policy. Moreover, given the organization’s policy against openly gay leaders, I would have supposed that gay Scoutmasters would remain quite guarded about their preference. There’s tremendous liability for both Scouting and the troop sponsor, so even the hint of impropriety can quickly lead to outrageous legal costs.

    Scout troops are usually affiliated with / sponsored by churches, so I suppose it depends upon the church to some extent.

  • Many organizations and authorities with power over children are open to misconduct of this type. It’s a human failing.

    It is true that the Catholic Church and certain parts of Orthodox Judaism have an additional problem, secretive hierarchies that can hide the perpetrators. While sex abuse happens in Protestant churches and more open branches of Judaism, and in secular summer camps, and so on, it’s easier to catch and root out in those places. There isn’t an additional layer of secrecy to enable long-running cover-ups. And it’s the cover-up that really hurts.

    As for pre- and post-adolescents, it’s still abuse when it’s teenagers, although the nature of the abuse is different. While capable of defending themselves physically, teenagers are still vulnerable to mental and emotional manipulation. With older children, it’s fear and brainwashing that are the essential thing, not crude physical superiority. It’s similar to how cults work.

    The most important thing to prevent this: making sure it’s utterly clear to children once they’ve reached the right age (say, age 5 or age 7) that they can tell a responsible adult if something like this happens to them, or they witness it. Most children will not do this on their own without prior adult clarification. Abuse is frightening in a special way: abuse has an isolating power; it feels as if it came from another reality and can’t be spoken about.

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