As anyone who's seen Spotlight is well aware, the Catholic church doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to child abuse. Over the years hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse have been leveled at priests, pastors, and even Cardinals as ever more survivors have come forward. However, as an in-depth investigation published in Newsweek today reveals, the problem isn't limited to organized Catholicism. It also exists—and to an equally severe degree—in the Hasidic Jewish community, and ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism whose members are raised in a rigidly traditional setting.
That setting is in part to blame for the rampancy of abuse, writes Newsweek editor Elijah Wolfson. Boys and girls are separated from a young age, and all talk of sexuality, and even of their own bodies, is taboo. Thus they don't know when an interaction with an older mentor crosses the line between casual and sexually charged. Wolfson spoke to Ozer Simon, who was abused by his Rabbi; Manny Vogel, who was abused by an older classmate; Chaim Levin, who was abused by an older cousin; and Schneur Borenstein, who was molested by a Rabbi. He also interviewed Mendy Raymond, who was physically abused by a teacher.
In all of these cases, the abusers were protected. Even when victims, who were anywhere from grade school students to pre-teens at the time, told their parents or a trusted friend what had happened, their abusers were swept under the rug until the drama blew over. No abuse — either sexual or physical — was ever reported to the police. The silence is mostly due to outdated customs in the Hasidic community. As Wolfson writes:
There’s widespread belief that reporting abuse to secular authorities constitutes heresy. Traditional religious law prohibits mesirah, or “handing over”—a Jew may not snitch on another Jew to a secular government. Mesirah arose in the Middle Ages, when a European Jew charged with a crime would not get a fair trial—it was a prohibition designed, essentially, to protect against institutionalized anti-Semitism.
Today, in North American Haredi communities, there is debate over how the mesirah prohibition should be applied. In 2011, the Crown Heights Beis Din (the rabbinical court that handles internal religious disputes) ruled that mesirah “do[es] not apply in cases where there is evidence of abuse” and that “one is forbidden to remain silent in such situations.” And earlier this year, 107 Hasidic rabbis signed a kol koreh, or “public pronouncement,” stating that there is a religious obligation to notify secular law enforcement when it knows of child abuse.
When Chaim Levin spoke out about his abuser, he was shunned. "I was the villain for ‘misleading’ the public," he told Newsweek. "From the age of 14, I was bounced around from yeshiva to yeshiva and was treated like a criminal because I had the audacity to speak up."