Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The ultra-Orthodox face up to abuse 

The uncovering of sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders in the Catholic church is mirrored within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. As with the Catholic church, where the abuse was uncovered early on in the US, institutional child sexual abuse is starting to be prosecuted in New York. And as with the Catholic church, which has begun to change its stance on prosecuting priests, ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders are beginning to permit the reporting to police of these crimes. As with the Catholic church, Jewish victim support groups and advocates have brought these crimes to the public's attention. The question is whether, as with the Catholic church, this is far too little far too late.

A little known Jewish law called mesira, found in the Talmud with some scriptural support, forbids a Jew from reporting another Jew to the gentile authorities. The law was in response to non-Jewish governments whose courts were staffed by antisemites. According to Jewish leaders, those courts looked for any excuse to find against a Jew. Many rabbis took a rather dim view of gentile legal processes, advocating that their courts were flawed, antisemitic and less capable than Jewish courts. Mesira essentially allowed Jewish courts to retain control over all disputes, ensuring that religious law prevailed.

In today's society, where there are proper, transparent and just courts of law, the law of mesira has largely been abandoned. Most Jewish communities recognise the legal system of the countries where they live; saving relatively few disputes, mostly centring on religious issues such as divorce, for the Jewish courts. However, the ultra-Orthodox communities still use mesira to prohibit any Jew being reported to the non-Jewish authorities.

As can be imagined, this is a pretty dangerous stance to take, particularly in terms of violent criminals. Perpetrators of, for example, domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual crimes, are often protected by the ultra-Orthodox communities and dealt with "in-house". They are sometimes beaten up by the self-appointed Jewish "police", and often moved to areas where there is no knowledge of their crimes.

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have been afforded similar protection to Catholic priests. Rabbis have continued to teach, in their own or in new institutions. Yehuda Kolko allegedly had his crimes covered up by the Yeshiva Torah Temima school where he taught for over 25 years. Communities have shielded fugitives, such as Nachman Stal, who fled charges in Israel and was protected for almost a decade by the North London ultra-Orthodox community.


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