Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reporting abuse in yeshivot

Yesterday, Harry Maryles posted a letter from a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school principal who, while strongly acknowledging the seriousness of past cases of abuse in Orthodox schools and that the protection of children is the first priority, warns against false accusations that could ruin a teacher or rebbi’s life. He relates two cases in his school where the accusations turned out to be false and recommends caution in proceeding in these cases.

Harry, in introducing the letter, writes:

This is not to say there should be any less vigilance. Certainly if we err - it should be on the side of the child. But great care should be taken before we act in a way that can destroy innocent people.

Bearing this in mind it is my view that when there is accusation by a child against a Rebbe the first line of defense should be to protect the child. To that end the accused Rebbe should be quietly told to call in ‘sick’ and not show up in school until the matter is fairly investigated.

Private investigators should be hired with a mandate to use discretion and protect the reputation of those being investigated. Child psychiatrists with expertise in these matters should be brought in to evaluate the child and his or her accusation. If as a result there is credible basis to an accusation then it should immediately be reported to the police. That, in my view is the prudent course of action.

I cannot disagree more strongly. Despite the risk or ruining teachers’ lives, far more children’s lives have been ruined by "internal investigations".

I agree that everything should be done discreetly and that the accusations should never be made public until there is credible evidence. And I agree that, as Harry suggests, the rebbi should be quietly told to take sick leave while the investigation is carried out.

But accusations that have any potential credibility whatsoever should be reported to the police, as required by law. The police should handle it in a discreet manner. If they don't do so, then policy changes should be made on a communal level to force more discretion on the part of the police and social services.

Far too many instances of abuse in yeshivot have been swept under the rug in past years because those institutions wanted to handle the matter "internally". Despite the best intentions here, this is another case of conflict of interest. How can investigators being paid by the yeshiva make an honest and objective assessment?

To leave it in the hands of yeshiva administrators, no matter what responsible steps are taken, is a recipe for sliding back to the old days when abuse was merely swept under the rug.

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