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10 July 2019 | Podcasts | Article by Alan Collins

HJ Talks About Abuse: Abuse in religious institutions: Judaism

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The Hugh James abuse team is running a series of podcasts into sexual abuse in religious contexts, but rather than focus on those which are often reported in the media, we will discuss religions which are often overlooked. In this three-part series, we will look into Judaism, Islam, and Baptists.

The prevalence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions has recently been highlighted by the Truth Project’s thematic report. In that report, Judaism and Islam represented only 1%, respectively, of the sample analyzed. But does this mean those religions have less of a problem with child sexual abuse than other religions? The results would suggest this is the case.

However, a study conducted in the United States would suggest otherwise. Dr. David Rosmarin of Harvard and Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University published a study entitled “childhood sexual abuse, mental health, and religion across the Jewish community” which posits the prevalence of any form of child sexual abuse was statistically equivalent to national rates (save for involuntary penetration of women, which was less). The study found that individuals who had left the Orthodox community are more than four times as likely to have been molested as children than the general population. Notably in that context, a history of involuntary penetration was greater among formerly, but not presently, Orthodox Jews. This suggests those who leave the Orthodoxy possessed a higher likelihood of having experienced sexual abuse. The study concludes that childhood sexual abuse was found to occur across the spectrum of Jewish religious affiliation, with greater prevalence among formerly Orthodox individuals.

As such, the results compiled by the Truth Project in this instance might well be misleading, inadvertently of course. It begs the question – is there underreporting of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community?

To flesh out this issue, in our view it is relevant to focus on two things – a study produced by David Katzenstein of New York University and Lisa Fontes of the University of Massachusetts and a case study of an Australian Supreme Court case of Erlich v Leifer.

To start with the article – the title might give you some indication as to its main thesis: Twice Silenced – The Underreporting of Child Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Jewish Communities. The article notes from the outset that CSA appears to be as prevalent in Orthodox Jewish communities as elsewhere.

We would like to highlight what we believe is a very important point from the outset – the report states in the opening paragraphs that “where religious authorities do not follow their legal obligations to report CSA, those children who are isolated from institutions outside the religious community, such as when they are schooled either at home or in religious institutions, appear to be at special risk for continued abuse over time without intervention”. This is particularly relevant to religious institutions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, which we hope the IICSA will shine a very bright light on in the upcoming hearings but also represents how this can lead to problems in religions with strict orthodoxy and a desire to be very closed in.

Within the Jewish faith, like many, CSA is abhorred. Some Rabbis have understandably called CSA a “matter of life and death” because of its far-reaching harm. So why then, does it continue and why is there underreporting in respect of CSA in the Jewish community?

Katzenstein and Fontes posit that the underreporting reflects both the systemic reasons for this in minority religions, and some reasons which are specific to Orthodox Judaism. For the former case, feelings of shame and self-blame and fear of disclosure lead to underreporting, and for the latter, the laws of Mesira and Loshon Hora for example, which is very specific to the Jewish community.

Interestingly, an early scholar on this subject, referenced as Featherman in the report stated that “as a minority culture with a long history of persecution, Jews have learned not to draw attention to their differences or take actions that might bring shame or notoriety to their families, including reporting CSA to secular authorities”. This lines up well with the conclusions of Katzenstein and Fontes that five overarching themes emerge when looking at reasons for the prevalence of underreporting and those are:

  1. Mesira and Loshon Hora (prohibitions against reporting to secular authorities and of speaking ill of a fellow Jew);
  2. Fear and intimidation;
  3. Stigma and shame;
  4. Reliance on rabbinical courts; and
  5. Patriarchal gender roles

The first point there is one we will deal with in more detail, as it is likely something most listeners have never heard of. The law of Mesira equates communication with secular authorities to report another Jew’s transgressions with treason and Loshon Hora, a prohibition against speaking ill of others, is often considered to be the reason that abusers cannot be publicly named. Loshon Hora is a serious biblical sin that encompasses all manners of speech including gossip, slander, and derogatory speech against a fellow Jew. It should be noted that the Rabbinical Council of America in 2003 noted that reporting sexual abuse does not violate Mesira, and many Rabbis have spoken out that those laws are inapplicable in cases of CSA. But one must consider the practical realities of such laws and the inherent effect it might well have, as is the case in many religions where the practical effect of a practice is different than the publicised explanation.

The next point of interest is the reliance on rabbinical courts. Rabbinical courts have adjudicated civil matters for generations but have no power to detain, arrest or jail. Katzenstein and Fontes report that reports of CSA have been taken to these courts which have sometimes investigated the allegations, pledged to monitor the accused and at times ordered restitution to a survivor but typically did not inform the police. Unsurprisingly, many reports state that the courts are woefully unequipped for the forensic investigation of allegations.

Katzenstein and Fontes conclude that while the Catholic Church is structurally one centralized institution with a single authoritative figurehead and in this way differs from the array of institutions in Orthodox Jewish communities, the propensity to protect the reputation of communities, institutions, and leaders over protecting and safeguarding child victims is sadly similar.

The barriers to reporting as highlighted in the study are not altogether surprising, as we see similarities between religious institutions and CSA generally, and those which have esoteric rules and laws which pertain to those within the institution itself.

Of course it is relevant to note that the study was conducted in the USA and is centrally relevant to the communities focused on, but nevertheless, one must consider the application of the findings in communities across the world.

One highly reported case which made it to the courts outside the USA is the case of Erlich v Leifer in Victoria, Australia. The claimant, Dassi Erlich was sexually abused by the school principal, Malka Leifer. A 2017 story in the Australian summed up the case well:

Erlich was only 15 years old and no one in her ultra-orthodox Adass Jewish neighbourhood in East St Kilda knew then that she was being abused by a doyenne of that community, the respected female principal of the Adass Israel School. Erlich herself would not understand what it all meant until years later when memories haunted her and then almost killed her.

She would have to reject the tightly knit religious community of barely 2000 people and all she had known in order to seek justice. Then came the police statements, the court case, the million dollars in damages and the stunning news that her community leaders had spirited Leifer out of Australia in the dead of night to Israel, where she continues to evade justice. In a cruel twist, Erlich also learned that two girls close to her were abused by the same woman.

The case has garnered international notoriety not only due to the sexual abuse but due to the sheer disrespect for the law of the land and the survivor shown by the community leaders who assisted in Leifer being able to escape Australia before she was arrested. Leifer remains in Israel and has resisted a number of extradition attempts to be brought to justice in Australia.

Former Victorian Supreme Court Judge Jack Rush analyzed in detail the structure of the school, the community and the role of Leifer and found an extremely tight-knit, inward community. Justice Rush rejected evidence that secular and religious studies were equally important, finding that the Strategic Plan of the school was to, amongst other aims, produce “graduates who are able to preserve Orthodox Jewish traditions and practices and pass these on to the next generation”. In short, the focus on the religion and the community was paramount and Leifer, as the principal, was the operating mind and will of the school, with supreme authority.

It became evident through the evidence provided by members of the board, one of which a Barrister at the Victorian Bar, that their stories in relation to the lead up to Leifer’s departure was inconsistent. It was clear, however, that there was knowledge of more than one victim (in fact, three), that no report was made to the police of the abuse initially and an Adass community member paid for the airline tickets of Leifer and her family to Israel. Much could be said about this sequence of events, and arguably facilitating Leifer’s avoidance of the Australian authorities, but Justice Rush aptly summed up the sequence of events as “extraordinary” and he was unable to understand what legal obligations required the school to pay for the airfares of Leifer.

This case is an interesting and telling case study into a closed culture which was highly resistant to the publicity the sexual abuse might attract, and the involvement of secular authorities from the outset.

Justice Rush ordered the school to pay $1,024,428 in damages. Leifer remains at large and the most recent attempt at extradition was in June 2018, following which Leifer was placed under house arrest and under supervision of a local rabbi. This is of patently unjust and Leifer ought to be extradited and face Australian courts for her crimes.

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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