Are we as guilty as the Catholic Church?

Those who knew didn’t speak, those who spoke were ignored, and those who abused were protected

Haredi man in Jerusalem  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi man in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Spotlight, the 2015 movie about The Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, has many moments of reckoning for both the community that shielded the abusers and the journalists who missed the story for decades.
“You were right Robbie,” a lawyer who helped settle abuse cases for the church says to his friend, the editor in charge of the reporting. “We all knew something was going on. So where were you? What took you so long?”
“I don’t know,” Robbie replies.
It is later revealed that Robbie, played by Michael Keaton, had buried news on a child-molesting priest years earlier. No one thought the abuse was systematic.
This is the conversation the Jewish community will be having with itself very soon – about who knew, when they knew, why no one saw the bigger picture, and why so little was done.
Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and the church’s cover-up, is back in the news, and the scope and scale continues to be astounding. A Pennsylvania grand jury reported more than 300 priests committing horrific acts, damaging the lives of over 1,000 children as the clerics continued to be shuffled through the church system.
And just a few days ago, BuzzFeed News published an in-depth report on how nuns violently abused and even purposefully murdered children at St. Joseph’s Catholic orphanage in Burlington, Vermont.
As with the priests, the nuns’ behavior is a worldwide phenomenon that was enabled for decades. How did they get away with it? Those who knew didn’t speak, those who spoke were ignored or actively blacklisted, and those who committed the crimes were shuffled around to various locations in an assortment of roles.
This is the same description of sexual abuse in the Jewish community.
A quick Google search will confirm.
Stanley S. Rosenfeld, as The Forward reported, was bounced around multiple Orthodox schools in New York working as an educator and molesting hundreds of children for years, while members of the community, including the well-known Rabbi Haskel Lookstein knew and remained quiet.
Malka Leifer, as reported by the Times of Israel and JTA, is wanted on 74 charges of sexual abuse committed while she was principal of an ultra-Orthodox school in Australia. Leifer fled to Israel in 2008, where she was allowed to roam freely until her arrest in 2014. Court proceedings will decide whether she is mentally fit to stand trial in Australia. She is but one of several similar cases in the Australian Jewish community.
Multiple reports, from Newsweek and The New York Times to JTA and The New York Jewish Week, tell shockingly similar stories from across the United States of children abused by rabbis and teachers, and cover-ups by prominent leaders. Replace “priest” with “rabbi” at random, and there is little to differentiate description of abuse in the Catholic community from abuse in the Jewish community.
So how long will the Jewish community, and Jewish journalism, close its eyes to what seems to be clearly visible? More than individual cases, we have a institutional problem of sexual abuse of children.
The key in The Boston Globe’s reporting was that it showed a systematic cover up and enabling of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. While this is harder to show in the Jewish community, as there is no central authority like in the Catholic Church, all of the individual cases of abuse add up to something larger. The Jewish community is small and close-knit, especially in more religious spaces, lending heavy weight to the assertion that if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.
There is no possible way that we have fared better than the Catholic community on this issue, only that we’ve done a much poorer job investigating, reporting on and addressing our own. And the story is starting to make its way out of the woodwork.
One day very soon, the worldwide Jewish community will wake up to a reckoning that will shake us to the core. There will be no act of teshuvah, repentance, that can free us, and no messiah to save us. Everywhere we will turn, there will be the visible wreckage of innocent lives, preyed upon through synagogues, schools, Jewish organizations like Hillel and Chabad, youth groups, summer camps, and yeshivot. The damage will tear across denominational lines and cross beyond borders. The list of names will be long, and we will see that sexual abuse in our community is not a series of individual acts, but a connected story of cover-ups and enablement.
What will we do then? Cry “Hineini – Here I am” to the heavens? I am afraid no one will be listening.
The writer is a freelance journalist, a reporting fellow for New Voices magazine, and a contributing writer to TC Jewfolk.