On March 12th, the New York Times carried a front page story reporting that Catholic and Orthodox Jewish officials had banded together in opposition of a bill pending in the State Legislature that would temporarily lift the statue of limitations on child sex abuse law suits. The bill, also opposed by the Civil Liberties Union, presents some broader legal issues, but it is the opposition of these religious groups that is so telling. The sex abuse of children by Catholic priests is now well known to all. It has cost the Church dearly in both reputation and in the pocketbook. In fact, a Catholic spokesman sought to discredit the legislation by suggesting an ulterior motive, that it was only “…designed to bankrupt the Catholic Church”. Why Jewish groups have a stake in this is less known, but no less horrific.
A month earlier, NPR broadcast an investigative report by Barbara Haggerty on All Things Considered about the abuse of orthodox children in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. In it she tells the story of Joel Engelman and Joe Diangelo, both now young adults who were abused in their Hasidic community’s mikvah (ritual bath) and school. Diangelo, raped by an unknown assailant while having a pre-Sabbath cleansing, was so traumatized that he ultimately changed his name from Joel Deutsch and has cut all his ties with both family and community. The then eight-year-old Englmen was abused twice a week over a period of two months by Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, principal at his school, The United Talmudical Academy. Like the Catholic Church, the Hasidic community tried to cover up the scandal. One of their spokesmen even dismisses it as “…being blown out of proportion — big time.” At best, they seek to ajudicate compaints within their own internal “legal” jurisdiction, which often amounts to discrediting the victim while sustaining the perpetrator. Reichman was actually suspended but Haggerty reports was hired back in July of last year “one week after Joel Engelmen turned 23 and could no longer bring a criminal or civil case against the rabbi.” This was far from an isolated case. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, Haggerty reports, “has 10 active sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jews — including a school principal…and Hynes says there could be many more.” Author Hella Winston reported to Haggerty that, in researching for her book Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, she “encountered dozens of alleged victims who told her sexual abuse is an open secret in the Hasidic community. But the community is so insulated and the rabbis are so powerful that few dare to come forward.”
Orthodox religions are not, as some current critics might have it, innately evil. But they are the breeding ground for, among others, modern day terrorism. The September 11 hijackers were fundamentalist orthodox Muslims acting “in God’s name”. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, an American born orthodox Jewish physician and graduate of The Yeshiva of Flatbush, gunned down worshipers in a Hebron mosque killing 29 and injuring 150 before he was beaten to death by the crowd. He was eulogized as a martyr by his orthodox rabbi; his graveside in Kiryat Arba has become a shrine to someone who “gave his life” for his people. In contrast, those who killed him are deemed murders by his fellow orthodox extremists.
Over the last three decades, orthodox religious groups have played an aggressive, and in my view very negative, role in American life. They have grabbed hold of the public microphone and, in part by taking control of the Republican Party, have used it and political power to influence public policy. That has, among others, set back progress in both stem cell research and in combating global warming, though some in the religious right are coming around on that issue. The orthodox have presented themselves are arbiters of morality and values including how young people should approach sex. In that, their blocking of comprehensive education in favor of abstinence-only teaching has led to disastrous consequences. In her November 2008 New Yorker article, Margaret Talbot reports that in states where orthodox religion holds sway, and sex education is inhibited or limited to abstinence, teen pregnancy, STDs and early marriages leading to higher rates of divorce prevail in contrast to those where it has no such influence. Anna Quindlen echoes these findings in her most recent Newsweek opinion piece, Let’s Talk About Sex.
Orthodoxy, like much of religion, is predicated on a leap-of-faith and on assumptions about our past, present and future that often run contrary to what many of us would consider positive progress. The results can be repressive and, taken to their ultimate conclusion, often lethal. Progressive religionists often disavow this approach to faith, but their own insularity, timidity and relative silence has allowed it to dominate the agenda and give religion its most visible public face. While many in the orthodox communities adhere to their beliefs with heartfelt loyalty and integrity, the hypocrisy meter is off the charts for others, in many cases their leaders, whose words and deeds fail to match. The protests against lifting the statue of limitations on child abuse by the self-proclaimed pious are only a metaphor for a much larger and more pervasive problem. It’s scope is reflected in the just released General Social Survey showing that only 20% of us have great confidence in organized religion, just about the same number that trust in our beleaguered banks. It is a broad brush of disillusionment that affects all religion not only the religious right orthodox.