Ethics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Orthodox child abuse

-1On Monday, the Rabbinical Council of America applauded the conviction of a leader of the Satmar Hasidic sect for sexually molesting an adolescent girl. In doing so, the umbrella organization of mainline “Modern Orthodox” rabbis called attention to the practice of hushing up such acts.

For many years the RCA has condemned the efforts of many parts of the Jewish community to cover up or ignore allegations of abuse, viewing these efforts as against Jewish law, illegal, and irresponsible to the welfare of victims and the greater community.

Yesterday, the RCA had the tougher task of addressing a coverup of sexual abuse at its flagship institution, Yeshiva University. An  investigation by the Jewish Forward revealed that students at Yeshiva’s high school for boys were abused by two senior staff members in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When allegations were brought to the attention of Yeshiva’s leaders–including, most notably, current chancellor Norman Lamm–the men were not reported to the authorities but simply permitted to resign and find jobs elsewhere.

Yeshiva_U.“If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly,” Lamm told the Forward. “It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.”

Current Yeshiva president Richard Joel has issued an apology that the RCA takes at face value. “It is especially hard to confront improprieties which may have occurred in our own house, yet that is where the responsibility lies,” said RCA president Shmuel Goldin. “We are confident that Yeshiva is equal to the task.”

What’s missing, however, is a call for holding the perpetrators of coverup to account. It is not good enough to condemn the practices of silence and to urge “a strengthening of synagogue and school policies.” The only way to get the full attention of those in charge is to make it clear that they will be punished if they do not refer reports of abuse to the civil authorities. And the only way to make that clear is for those who haven’t done so to actually be held responsible, including by the institutions themselves.

In the case of Yeshiva, one step is obvious. The 85-year-old Lamm, for all his distinguished career as a “a revered scholar, rabbi and communal leader,” needs to be relieved of his chancellorship.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • the Forward is only interested in attacking Orthodox Judaism and using all of you as a ploy. ALL SHOULD STOP COMMENTING AND perhaps this would die out. The students involved are now remembering things that happened in the 60’s and 70’s AND 80’S . D. The bottom line is why didnt the parents go to the police. The excuse that they were afraid the children’s reputations would be destroyed is ludicrous. I would have taken action immediately. DR. LAMM is being used as a fall guy. It would be best if all invilved no longer made comments to the press. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

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