The sentencing of Nechemia Weberman to over 100 years in prison last week has once again brought the issue of child abuse in our communities to the fore. Many of us do not want to believe that child abuse in any form is found in the Torah community. Or we imagine that if it does exist, it is confined to obviously deranged and marginal individuals. At the very least, we wish that somehow matters could be worked out in private, in a way not pointing a bright searchlight on our community and forcing us to confront difficult realities.
Alas, there is no possibility of quiet resolution – at least not if we want to protect our children's bodies and souls. A community that attempts to deal with abuse issues quietly, in ways that protect our peace of mind, is a community that emboldens predators into thinking that they can get away with it – that sympathy for their families, or the instinctive recoil from admitting that such things can happen in our world too, or communal shame at being exposed before the secular world will serve to protect them.
Every predator will take steps to ensure that his victims remain silent. He will warn them of dire consequences if they tell or try to convince them that no one will believe them if they report what has happened to them. If children's complaints are routinely suppressed or discounted, the perpetrator's warning, "No one will believe you," gains credence and make it less likely that the victims will report. Experts in the field estimate that only in one out of ten victims reports what happened to him or her to an adult in a position to help them.
The feeling that they will not be caught emboldens predators. And by the same token, the assurance that they will be caught and prosecuted is the most effective way to stop abuse.
To understand why reporting to authorities when there is good cause for suspicion of abuse is so crucial it is first necessary to understand the impact of abuse on the victims and the importance of "validation" of their suffering in order for them to heal. (I'm drawing primarily on a chapter by Dr. David Pelcowitz, "Treatment of Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse," in a volume entitled Breaking the Silence.)
Victims of abuse understandably suffer a loss of trust and security. When the perpetrator is someone to whom they look for security or someone representing authority within their community, that loss of trust is greatly magnified. How can they place their trust in a community that has failed so dramatically to protect them? Mrs. Debbie Fox, who established an abuse prevention program in Los Angeles Torah schools, which is now being widely emulated nationwide under her direction, writes in Breaking the Silence that victims often express greater anger towards those who failed to protect them than with the perpetrator himself.
A community that cannot provide security and which betrays the natural trust of our young and helpless will not command their allegiance. When family members do not believe the victims or are unwilling or unable to take steps to protect them, writes Dr. Pelcowitz, "a generalized lack of trust in friends, family and community develops."
Victims may experience not only rage against the community, or the "system," in general, but also against Hashem for not running His world with Justice.' That is one reason victimhood correlates so highly with being "at-risk."
Victims frequently experience general feelings of worthlessness and blame themselves for what happened to them. It is crucial that when they report being victimized that they hear a clear and unambiguous message that they have been wronged and are not to blame for what happened to them. According to Dr. Pelcowitz, however, it is relatively common for parents or others who receive indications of abuse to downplay the significance of that abuse. Yet when the response of the community does not actively and unambiguously support the child by validating their feelings [of being horribly wronged] and ensuring that they feel safe, feelings of guilt and worthlessness can be significantly exacerbated," concludes Dr. Pelcowitz.
Many victims of abuse adopt a pattern of hopeless passivity. When adults act upon their complaints and take them seriously, they counteract those feelings of helplessness and passivity. Other victims engage in dissociation – i.e., enter a state of dream-like numbness to avoid the pain inflicted upon them. Before they can heal, they need to be able "to name the monster." But that naming of the monster can only take place in an environment where they feel comfortable talking about what happened to them and that they are taken seriously.
So important is validation as a first step in healing that one social worker with whom I spoke actually took a young victim to file a police complaint against a perpetrator who had died in the interim. Dr. Pelcowitz concludes that "one of the best predictors of recovery is the level of support offered once the abuse is disclosed."
And conversely, even adults who were victimized as children experience a reopening of their childhood traumas when they see new victims denied communal support and protection. That is something that those who ask, "Why can't they just get on with their lives and leave the past behind?" can't understand. The past is often still with them, especially if they did not receive the support they needed.