The Washington Post is following a story that will sound all too familiar to many Catholics: the sexual abuse of young children in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community. In the new documentary, Standing Silent, Phil Jacobs, himself a victim of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, has set out to chronicle the stories of similar victims in a community that saw 132 reports of child sexual abuse last year—nearly double the rate of the previous year.
This news is certainly shocking, but the most interesting parts of the story are the similarities to the Catholic abuse scandals of the past decade. In both cases, victims recounted difficulties in reporting the abuse to the authorities or even to other members of their own communities, who often refused to believe the allegations or discouraged victims from coming forward:
There are . . . cultural reasons for silence, stemming at least in part from a Jewish law known as “mesirah,” which forbids informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. The law is integral to a culture of self-protection rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism, according to Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser of Yeshiva University in New York.
Reporting sexual abuse first to a rabbi is the recommended protocol of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox umbrella group with an affiliated synagogue in Pikesville. The organization — whose influence in some Orthodox communities is similar to that of the Vatican among some Catholics, Blau says — issues opinions on policy matters.
Blau, whose efforts to hold the community accountable for sexual abuse are highlighted in the documentary, says the protocol endangers children. He draws a parallel with the Roman Catholic Church, where a pervasive culture of silence and denial made clergy unlikely to pass abuse accusations along to police.
When the Catholic sex abuse scandals first began to come to light, many commentators rushed to pillory the Church as an institution whose beliefs and practices were singularly responsible for creating a culture of abuse. As this story makes clear, pedophilia is not simply a Catholic problem; the problems associated with sexual abuse of children and the reporting of those crimes cannot be confined to one group or belief.
Nor is child sexual abuse a religious problem. Last year’s abuse and coverup scandal at Penn State, and the recent reports of widespread abuse at an L.A. elementary school, show many of the same hallmarks, from witnesses refusing to testify against a beloved authority figure to disbelief or denial from the broader community. Pedophilia is a human problem; it requires no religious dogma or institution to nurture it. Celibate priests, married rabbis and beloved coaches: nobody has an exemption.