Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Child Abuse: Halacha vs Secular Law - Dr. Resnicoff

Jewish Law and the Tragedy of Sexual Abuse of Children: The Dilemma within the Orthodox Jewish Community

Steven H. Resnicoff

   DePaul University College of Law   June 1, 2012 
Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2012

Jewish law requires a person to exert one’s energies and expend one’s financial resources to prevent the commission of interpersonal crimes and to protect or rescue victims of such crime. By contrast, American law generally permits a person to watch another bleed to death without offering any assistance at all. Most Jewish law courses place great emphasis on this difference, and commentators frequently cite it as proof of Jewish law’s moral superiority.

However, with respect to the tragedy of child sexual abuse, the systems seem to have switched roles. American law imposes a variety of affirmative duties on individuals and organizations to protect prospective victims. These obligations include conducting fingerprint-based criminal background checks on employees and reporting reasonably suspected or reasonably believed child abuse to public authorities.

By contrast, with respect to child sexual abuse, many, although certainly not all, important Orthodox authorities have rejected the ameliorative steps prescribed by secular law. Even more troublingly, they have permitted, and in at least some cases possibly encouraged, reprisals against those who have reported abuse, including victims and their families.

I argue that the problem does not lie in Jewish law. After thoroughly examining the relevant Jewish law doctrines, I conclude that Jewish law not only permits but actually demands that vigorous measures be taken to eradicate child sexual abuse. However, I also acknowledge that the sociological realities of the Orthodox Jewish community seem to have produced a variety of pressures that help perpetuate the status quo. Such factors include conscious or subconscious concerns for the financial viability of important communal institutions and for the community members’ continued fealty to traditional rabbinic authorities. However, I argue that even these concerns could be more successfully addressed if rabbinic authorities would spearhead steps to stamp out child sexual abuse.

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