Child abuse is one of the things parents fear most for their children - physical abuse or sexual molestation. It means not only a major violation of trust – in the assumption that adults will protect children – but it can also be a source of severe lifetime psychological damage to the tender child – that can lead him/her to hurt others in turn.
But it is not just parents who abuse and molest their children - it is also siblings, extended family, teachers, clergy – and sometimes strangers.
While everyone will agree that it is horrible – the response to child abuse has been strangely muted. Even in the Orthodox Jewish community – there is often silence from the family of the victim – refusing to press charges even when begged. Sometimes there are active attempts within the community to silence the accusation. [This is true of other communities as well]. On the other hand, in the world of the communication media – especially the liberal newspapers and magazines as well as some blogs - there is almost a gleeful lynch mob mentality – “Let’s get the mamzer and show the world that the well thought of parent, educator, author, principal, teacher or psychologist is nothing but a warped pervert preying on innocent children.”
How in fact should someone respond when they hear rumors or suspect that some one is molesting children in his/her neighborhood or school? What should a parent do when it seems Uncle Mark has been spending a lot of time with his 9-year-old niece – doing inappropriate things? Is the ideal response to pick up the phone and call the police?
Is it to call your rabbi? Or perhaps one should simply pickup a baseball bat and teach the person a lesson?
I am presently working on a book – Child Abuse and Halacha. Contrary to other halachic issues such as theft, or whether opening a soda bottle is permitted on Shabbos – there are many diverse and conflicting considerations when dealing with child abuse. I am exploring questions such as, “Is the primary concern the suffering of the victim or stopping the perpetrator?” “Does the potential chilul HaShem deserve the most attention or is the destruction of trust and respect of teachers and schools?” “Are we to be concerned only with the loss of Olam HaBah promised to informers or is the requirement of stopping a rodef more important?” “Are all the above considerations primary some of the time – or is there a response which is best all of the time?”
I am not only collecting the halachic sources on the issues above but also researching the psychological literature in terms of the nature of the damage. What types of abuse constitute pikuach nefesh? Is it better to focus on accepting what happened or to encourage repression of the experience? Is systematic desensitization training more useful than the concern with catharsis?
In addition, I am trying to elucidate the various perspectives that are brought to bear on the subject.
For example I recently posted one of the earliest references to child molesting – the Tzemach Tzedek – on my blog Daas Torah. The question was whether this teshuva represented a gadol’s ignorance of child abuse or whether there simply was very little if any child abuse in the 1800’s? Alternatively it could be argued that the Tzemach Tzedek’s prime focus was not whether a serious crime was committed but whether the event could be understood as innocent enough so the rabbi would not lose his position. While the question remains unresolved, it needs to be explored further.
Finally I will be presenting actual cases which can serve as guidelines for the concerned parent, teacher or community rabbi. For example, I was once consulted by a young lady who had been molested by some frum boys when she was ten. She concealed the event from her parents and became increasingly withdrawn and depressed. As a teenager she tried committing suicide. Had a mental breakdown. Was hospitalized in a mental hospital for several years. Now at the age of 20, she seemed fully recovered, cheerful and productive.
My question to her was, now that it is over why are you coming to me? She replied that she has learned to deal with the horrible memories, the pain and degradation. She has learned to let go of feelings of revenge. She has a single problem left. She had asked a single question to all the rabbis she has consulted, “Why did G-d do this to me?” They all replied with some version of, “G-d always does what is best and for reasons beyond our comprehension felt that you had to be raped.” She said simply, “I can’t accept that G-d is so cruel!” My response was that these rabbis were wrong. That they were providing her with one legitimate view of theology i.e., that all that happens is caused by G-d. But there is an alternative view – that of all the Rishonim.
This view says that one man can harm another man – even though G-d doesn’t want it to happen. This is the view not only of Rishonim but is that expressed in Michtav M’Eliyahu, the Netziv citing the Zohar, it is also the view of the Maharal. Thus I told her, G-d did not want it to happen but He gives free-will to man, He does not stop man from acting. You have suffered greatly but will be compensated in the World to Come. She replied that she could live with such an understanding of G-d, while the other view was totally unacceptable. However other victims receive greater consolation from the original answer. One needs to be sensitive to individual differences.