#ItsNotOK: The community’s response can hurt more than the abuse

From the 4th to the 10th of February, police forces, local authorities, third sector workers, activists and individuals across the UK will mark Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week. This year, the awareness week will coincide with New York’s Governor Cuomo signing the long awaited Child Victims Act into law.

The Child Victims Act will now enable New York citizens to bring criminal charges against their abusers for longer than ever before, and also raises the civil statute of limitations for all sexual abuse claims to age 55. It removes the 30-day notice of claim requirement for civil cases brought against public institutions, and it opens a one-year lookback window starting six months after the bill is signed into law, during which time any civil case whose statute of limitations has already passed can file suit in civil court against their abusers, or any party responsible for enabling or protecting their abusers.

For years, Agudath Israel of America joined the Catholic Church in an unholy alliance, lobbying strategically to prevent the bill from becoming law. Both institutions feared the financial repercussions that the bill would have. I expect they knew that their respective organisations or organisations that they represented were likely to be sued.

The Agudah’s press release in reaction to the bill passing makes their position clear:

… we opposed aspects of the Child Victims Act, out of concern that the unprecedented ability to revive decades-old claims in civil suits could jeopardize the ongoing viability of schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of communities like ours. That concern remains.”

This statement was sandwiched between platitudes around their awareness of how much pain is caused by sexual abuse.

What neither the Agudah nor the Catholic Church nor the Boys Scouts (who also lobbied against the bill) understand is that it is their actions that cause the most pain. Abusers will crop up in any society; it is the community response to that abuse that will determine whether they will be able to abuse further. In my experience, the communal enabling of sexual abuse is more harmful than the abuse itself. When the Agudah, and other faith leaders try to protect the image of the community, they are inevitably sacrificing the well-being of individual victims. They would do better to call out abuse as and when it occurs, encourage their communities to report abuse to the relevant authorities, and make their communities havens for survivors, not abusers.

In a 1996 paper entitled, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Jewish Perspective, JOFA’s founder, Blu Greenberg, comments on the way in which Torah She’bichsav, the Written Law, juxtaposes rules about mundane functions and holy rituals. She notes that there is no literary separation between ethical law and religious law. For example, the laws around building a fence at the edge of your roof (to keep people safe) are right next to the prohibition against mixing various fibres when weaving them and different species when planting them. The law forbidding the sexual exploitation of one’s daughter is right after the law forbidding the idolatrous practice of cutting one’s flesh and right before the laws of keeping Shabbos.

Blu tells us that we learn from these juxtapositions is that all laws are G-d’s laws. Socially ethical commandments, such as making sure your property is safe, are as holy as the instructions we don’t understand. Not sexually exploiting your child is as much of our covenant with G-d as is the holy bond of Shabbos.

We are what we repeatedly do. We must fully integrate our moral and ethical obligations with our other rich and varied Torah commandments.

This year, JOFA UK, along with so many others, say: #itsnotok. It is not OK to allow our communities to be a place where our children are at risk of sexual exploitation. It is not OK to use faith as a fig leaf for abuse. It is not OK for faith-based institutions to choose to protect perpetrators over survivors. Not in G-d’s name.

This article first appeared in the Jewish News