As published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard
Rabbis assess the ethics of making allegations public once it is too late to press charges
Recent allegations of abuse against rabbis and educators at Yeshiva University High School for Boys are causing some discomfort among local Jewish leaders. One local rabbi, weighing compassion for alleged victims against concern for those whom they accused, has suggested that if victims do not report their abuse to the police in a timely manner, they must remain silent thereafter.
In a December 18 post called “Dealing with Scandal,” Steven Pruzansky, rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, wrote that we have sympathy for the alleged victims, “and we must have sympathy for the alleged victims, both genuinely and because it is politically correct to have sympathy for alleged victims. But the limits of my sympathy are tested when victims do not come forward and prosecute in real time — when the events occur — and instead wait for 20, 30, or even 40 years to come forward and do nothing more than besmirch the reputations of their alleged abusers.”
Pruzancky blogs at rabbipruzansky.com.
“All crime victims should report the alleged victimization to the police — especially when the allegations involve the abuse or molestation of minors,” his post continued. “Go right to the police and prosecution. They make arrests and prosecute. The judicial system exonerates or punishes. Rabbis have no role, despite what others might argue.”
When an alleged victim reports an incident to the police, “the accused then have the ability to defend themselves, to have their proverbial day in court.”
The opportunity to have the charges tested before judge and jury, however, is denied the accused once the statute of limitations has run out on the ability to prosecute. The media, on the other hand, has no statute of limitations. The adversarial system of justice does not apply to it.
In such “prosecut[ion] through the media” years later, the accused have a presumption of guilt, Pruzansky wrote. “They cannot defend themselves. They are tarred and feathered, hung out to dry, losing friends, family and supporters. They lose their jobs, and no one wants to be seen with them publicly. A lifetime of good deeds with a sterling reputation is erased in an instant, never to be regained and never to be recovered.”
Two wrongs don’t make it right
Describing this as “mob justice,” the rabbi called it “grossly unfair, not to mention an odious violation of Torah law. It is rank lashon hara, which Jewish law obligates us to disbelieve. It serves no one well, and serves no legitimate purpose.”
Pruzansky noted that it is possible that an accusation could serve a purpose, if the accused still is in a position to harm children. But “one might then fairly ask: If that is the motivation of the victims, then why didn’t they seek to protect their peers 20, 30, and 40 years ago? Why didn’t they prosecute when they should have?”
“[C]ivilized people do not address grievances by anonymously running to media decades after the event,” he wrote. “It is outrageous and shameful conduct, notwithstanding the sympathy one feels for them, whatever happened.
“There are often cogent and plausible reasons why victims do not come forward, usually to avoid stigma, publicity, or other personal issues,” he wrote. But “victims who choose silence when they could prosecute have a moral obligation to remain silent when they can no longer prosecute. The media grant the charges an aura of credibility that would necessarily be challenged in a courtroom.”
In a second post, dated December 23, Pruzansky noted that his earlier post had caused some controversy. Repeating his position that “fairness and justice demand that the accusers have our sympathy and the accused have the presumption of innocence,” he added that “justice is not always obtained in this world…. But injustice cannot be rectified through another injustice, and the mere fact that people are accused of crimes for which they can no longer defend themselves adequately strikes me as unjust.”
David J. Fine, rabbi of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, said he appreciated what Pruzansky had to say about the importance of reporting abuse to the police.
“Safety comes first,” he said. “Don’t wait to consult with rabbis first. It was appropriate and brave [of Pruzansky] to put that out there.”
However, Fine said, he did not agree that there should be a statute of limitations about reporting instances of abuse.
“I don’t see that this was warranted,” he said. “It can even be harmful. It pits the concern for saving future victims against the concern for someone’s reputation.”
Fine said that while Pruzansky does note that accusations might serve to prevent future incidents of abuse, “he discounts that and doesn’t explain adequately why he discounted that. As long as a person is still alive, and the alleged offender is in a position of respect and authority, it seems to me that nothing has changed.
An issue of trust
“The issue is that people trust someone in a position of authority,” he said. “If that authority is unwarranted,” people must be informed.
Fine also took issue with the idea of a statute of limitations in such cases.
“He kept connecting it to criminal prosecution, but we’re not talking here about criminal prosecution,” he said. “There are different standards of reporting. For example, you can still file civil suits even if there’s no criminal prosecution.”
At any rate, Fine said, when you can file such suits is a matter of civil law and has nothing to do with halachah.
“From the perspective of Jewish law, to be an authority is to be halachically obligated to behave in a way that shows yirat shamayim, fear of heaven,” he said. Someone who does not comport himself in that way is not worthy of holding that position of authority. Therefore, a statute of limitations on reporting impropriety is “not really relevant.”
Jewish law mandates a responsibility to report this kind of behavior, he said, adding that he does not discount the idea of going to the media.
“If someone went to the appropriate place [e.g., an ethics committee or similar body in a larger institution] and was ignored, I don’t see why they can’t go to the media if no one was listening,” he said.
Addressing Pruzansky’s suggestion linking reports of abuse to lashon hara, Fine said that in civil law, an accusation is not considered libel if it’s true. Lashon hara, he said, is “intended to besmirch.” Here, however, “it’s to share information so that the community knows that someone with authority is not worthy and is still in touch with people. This may even be seen as a mitzvah, depending on the circumstances. But to say that [the possibility for] prosecution by civil law has expired is not relevant.”
Fine said that while Pruzansky calls for compassion for victims, “it should be understood that sometimes the victims may need decades until they feel comfortable enough” to come forward, especially if the abuse had taken place while they were children. He noted that the Vatican is now considering charges of abuse for actions that took place many years ago.
Healing and t’shuvah
“They’re not saying ‘It’s too long ago,’” he said. “I believe that in Jewish tradition, we’re responsible for all of our actions, not just those of the last 18 months.
“There is no statute of limitations for healing and t’shuvah.”
Fine also said that being in a position of authority necessarily puts that person “under the microscope. I understand that as a rabbi. It’s part of being a public figure. That’s why you have to take that extra step and go beyond the measure of just what is legal. You have to be conscious of how things will appear.”
Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said that Pruzansky’s blog post raised “cogent points.
“Unfortunately, when accusations of this kind are raised, the only recourse is [for the accused] to be tried in the media,” he said. “The simple raising of the issues can create problems for those accused without giving them a proper forum to respond.”
But, he added, “Having said that, I don’t agree with [Pruzansky’s] conclusion. I think that individuals who are victimized often find themselves unable to come forward immediately in situations like the ones we’re dealing with. Or, in many cases, they came forward and were not listened to. To suggest that they are wrong in coming forward now is not correct.”
Goldin said that the process is imperfect. “What I would love to see is a safe place in the community for them to come forward, where both the victims and the accused would be heard in a reasonable fashion. That doesn’t currently exist. Therefore, we have to depend on the maturity of the community and the responsibility of media reporters to get it right.”
Switching from civil to Jewish law, Goldin said that Pruzansky appears to be suggesting that if accusations will not do any good, they are simple lashon hara, and they should not be allowed.
“I don’t agree,” Goldin said. “First, I don’t think we have a right to remove from the victims a mechanism of potential healing, which bringing forth accusations can afford them. That, in and of itself, is a good. Second, I believe that any time the issues are raised, even after the fact, some good can ensue. It can potentially stop such events from occurring and encourage others to come forward.” In addition, he said, if the accused still are in a position to harm others, now they may be stopped.
Goldin said he understands the motivation behind Pruzansky’s position and believes he has done the community a service in raising the question.
“It is a problem to accuse someone 25 years later,” he said. “Their life is never going to be the same. Can the community develop a mechanism to deal with that? It’s a challenge for us.”
Nevertheless, he said, the answer is not to prevent people who were abused from coming forward at any time.
Responding to Pruzansky’s blog post, Joel Mosbacher, rabbi of Mahwah’s Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, said, “I can’t see any basis for saying that [people] shouldn’t come forward. There’s no reason they can’t speak about situations in which they’ve been abused. There are all kinds of reasons they might not come forward in the moment, but that doesn’t mean that at some later time, they shouldn’t speak out.”
The bottom line, he said, is that he’s not as concerned about perpetrators’ reputations as he is about victims’ well-being.
“I have no compassion for people who perpetrate violent crimes,” he said. “I don’t want people to be wrongly accused. We have a legal system for that reason, and it’s up to them to parse out the truth from false accusations. I cannot see any reason, religious or from any other perspective, to weigh the possible impact on perpetrators as more significant than the rights of victims.”
In an email to The Jewish Standard, David-Seth Kirshner, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, called Pruzansky’s post “deeply insensitive… [with Pruzansky signaling] that halacha is not a living thing, but an archaic and non-breathing law that only exists in the vacuums of books and is only subject to his interpretation.”
Kirshner noted that he was speaking from bitter personal experience. One of his brothers, he wrote, had been sexually abused by a rabbi and “eventually, his repeated molestations and rape led to his mental instability and then his suicide.
“To my knowledge, he never spoke about his episodes when he was living except to his therapist and that was years after the ‘actual act’ occurred,” Kirshner wrote. “We learned of his abuse after his death.
“I am sickened to learn that Rabbi Pruzansky declares that my brother is not only a victim of abuse and dead because of suicide, but now he is categorized as a sinner for not speaking about his claim within the statute of limitations.”
Kirshner questioned the value of that statute in cases of sexual abuse.
Defining the limitations
“I am curious,” he wrote. “Is the statute of limitations hours after the abuse, weeks after the bruising heals, or when the memory and trauma fades?
“Rabbi Pruzansky’s statement on sexual abuse is tantamount to saying that victims of gun violence should duck the bullet, or else they deserve to be shot. Would we stand for that thinking? Should we?”
In an email to The Jewish Standard, Pruzansky pointed out that the statute of limitations is a legal doctrine, and “prosecutions in America are not governed by Jewish law.” If such trials were held in a bet din, “There would be no statute of limitations that would impede prosecution, but batei din do not have criminal jurisdiction in America.”
He noted, as well, that some jurisdictions do not have such statutes on prosecutions for child abuse, “and if such were the case in New York or New Jersey, the victims would be able to come forward now with their complaints and receive justice.”
In such instances, he wrote, “We would look askance at someone who could prosecute, and didn’t, and instead used the media as a cudgel of justice.
“My point, of course, is not to castigate past victims but to encourage current and future victims to prosecute,” Pruzansky continued. “Indeed, we have a concern for both future victims and for someone’s reputation. After all, a victim cannot legally take a gun and shoot his abuser 30 years later. Why, then, would he be allowed to assassinate his character?”