Rabbis should allow justice system to deal with suspected sex abuse cases

There’s a story about a man who went to his rabbi in an Eastern European shtetl and falsely accused a business partner of wrongdoing. So the wise old rabbi told the man to take a pillowcase full of duck feathers and scatter them in the village square. The man did so, and returned to the rabbi for further instructions.

The rabbi then told the man to go and retrieve the feathers. The man protested that this would be impossible. The rabbi said: That shows how valuable a person’s reputation is, and how once it’s damaged, it can’t be repaired.

When I worked in local radio news in the Bay Area, I was reluctant to name accused rapists and child molesters — or any other suspect — as soon as they were arrested. I was frequently overruled and had to name names in newscasts despite my misgivings. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”

I remember a few highly publicized cases in which men were accused of a sex crime and many people automatically believed they were guilty until it was later determined that the accusations were false.

But by then it was too late. Some lost their jobs. Others saw marriages, families and friendships break up. All probably ran up big legal bills.

So I understand to a certain degree why some ultra-Orthodox rabbis insist they be told about alleged sex crimes within their communities before anyone calls the police.

Their concern that in a small insular community, even more than in a larger population, the mere accusation of a sex crime can ruin a person’s reputation forever has a great deal of merit. I understand why they feel they must be extra vigilant to make sure someone making an accusation is not spreading rumors or gossip.

The rabbis probably wish they could impose a King Solomon-like solution that would administer swift justice, satisfy everyone and make the problem go away.

But rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community should learn from the Catholic Church’s experience with pedophiles: The problem isn’t going to go away by trying to blame, shun or intimidate victims and their families or protecting the accusers from prosecution.

The rabbis should remember the ancient commandment “Justice, justice you shall seek.” They should not leave themselves open to charges of obstructing justice because they order members of their congregations to come to them before reporting incidents to the police.

The rabbis should not appoint themselves judge and jury. Criminal cases should not be tried in a beit din or resolved quietly and made to go away. They should be referred to police and prosecutors.

In addition, rabbis and other prominent leaders should not use their political clout to try to pressure civil authorities to back off. A recent JTA report (“Brooklyn DA under fire over haredi sex abuse statistics,” May 18) revealed that the Brooklyn district attorney apparently gave special treatment to some in the Orthodox community who were trying to keep the lid on allegations of sexual abuse. Such actions only give more ammunition to anti-Semites.

Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community should step into the 21st century, start trusting the system and stop obstructing justice. There were times in the past when Jewish custom discouraged Jews from reporting other Jews to the civil authorities because rampant anti-Semitism prevented them from getting fair investigations and trials. That time has passed, at least here in the United States.

I’m hoping that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community will see that our justice system has always respected the Jewish people’s high regard for the law and made it possible for Jews to play a prominent role in the system.

The fact that there are so many prominent Jewish legal scholars, prosecutors and judges — including two justices on the United States Supreme Court — is proof of that.

Joel Kamisher is a former news anchor, reporter and producer at Bay Area radio stations KFRC, K101, KOFY, KCBS and Metro Networks who now writes the Media Pro Newsletter for public relations professionals.