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In recent years, organizations are making efforts to lift the veil of secrecy on sexual abuse in the religious sector.(Photo by: ILLUSTRATIVE/RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Secrecy still the rule for cases of familial sexual abuse
Given the role that family plays in Jewish life, and the potential ramifications of reporting the abuse to the police, many simply cannot bring themselves to do it.
Sexual abuse is a contentious issue fraught with challenges both for those who have experienced it and those who take care of them. In recent times, much has been written about institutional abuse. Society no longer denies its existence and victims are encouraged to come forward. The disclosure of institutional abuse is usually followed up by an investigation which can eventually lead to prosecutions and convictions. However, familial abuse remains somewhat of an enigma, sidelined to a large extent because most still find it difficult to entertain the possibility that it really occurs.

Every story of abuse is unique and needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis. Although much research is still needed in this area, factors such as personality and DNA may play a part in the behavior of a perpetrator. But whatever the reason, the results are devastating. And while the primary victim of sexual abuse in the family suffers the most, the secondary victims (the other family members) are also adversely affected.

I am a secondary victim of sexual abuse. We were once an ordinary family living a normal existence, but all that changed when it became known that one of my children had been abused by my husband for several years. Within minutes, the world as I knew it collapsed, to be replaced with a life that was extremely uncomfortable at best, and at worst completely foreign and inordinately challenging.

The betrayal I experienced and the conflict that accompanied it remain to a large extent untenable. The perpetrator had always been a wonderful father, an excellent provider and a good husband. I berated myself on an ongoing basis, putting myself down for not ever suspecting what was going on in my family. But how do you suspect something of which you have no knowledge and understanding?

One of my other children displayed survivor guilt at a very early stage. She wanted to know what was wrong with her and why her father hadn’t picked her. My response to her was simple: nothing at all was wrong with her and thank God he hadn’t picked her. The fierce loyalty of some of my other children toward their father was unfathomable. A year after the disclosure, I did not know what to do with some of their comments about how their father had changed and was no longer the person that had done those atrocious things.

In fact, this was probably true. Their father had confessed to everything and continues to state categorically on a regular basis that he will spend the rest of his days saying sorry and trying to make up for all the damage he’s caused. But apologies and attempts to rectify the situation will never make it any easier for me to take care of my children, each of whom is walking a different path emotionally.

I was lucky enough not to have to struggle with the question of whether to go to the authorities or not. For various reasons, this decision was taken out of my hands very soon after the disclosure, and our case moved through the court system more swiftly than usual. In many cases, because the perpetrator is the main breadwinner, the making of such a decision is likely to tear families apart. Loyalties are called into question, relationships are tested, and this inevitably (although unjustifiably) reflects badly upon the family. Given the role that family plays in Jewish life, and the potential ramifications of reporting the abuse to the police, many simply cannot bring themselves to do it.

Forgiveness, for those who can reach it, is a tool which can enable one to take care of oneself. When you forgive a person, your decisions and actions are no longer dictated by the other but rather by your own strength and courage, two of the most important factors needed to care for primary and secondary victims who suffer continuously from the consequences of familial abuse.

As a secondary victim and carer, taking care of myself is not a luxury but rather an obligation. Self-care enables me to remain standing when the going gets tough, which it does all the time. Familial abuse is not a path with a finite end but rather, a lifelong journey. Embracing it is made easier by reaching out to family, friends and members of the wider community. But this will only become a viable avenue for support when there is a greater willingness to talk about the horrors of familial abuse and all that it entails.
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