Freeing Rape Victims From Fundamentalism – In New York?

Call it a tale of two settings: one, a familiar-sounding drama of sex abuse and religious repression in a distant place; the other, a story you’ve probably never heard – at least not in full – though it may have unfolded much closer to home.

Or call it a tale of media double standards – one for Muslims, who may safely be demonized, and another for Orthodox Jews, whose sex abuse cover-ups are still only incompletely reported. Either way, there’s a lesson to be learned.

Last week, after a dramatic public trial, an Afghan mullah who raped a ten-year-old girl in his mosque in Kunduz was sentenced in a secular court to 20 years in prison. The New York Times prominently reported that story, noting that under the pressure of Islamic law, rape in Afghanistan “had long been treated as adultery, implicitly placing partial blame on the victim.” The Times’ story also stressed the mullah’s defense – which was that the young girl “seduced” him – and the support he received from other local clerics.

As news of the mullah’s conviction makes the rounds of U.S. news media, commentators are framing the story as an important step forward for rape victims in Afghanistan – particularly children – as they escape to secular courts from generations of fundamentalist oppression. I should stress at once that I have no quarrel with this description. Child rape has been shamefully tolerated in that culture; “religious” reasons have been invoked to minimize the offense and shift blame to the victims; victims who take their wrongs to secular courts have been stigmatized and threatened.

What concerns me is that the same news media, including the Times, have largely missed a remarkably similar story playing out in their own back yards. And no, I’m not talking about Muslims and sharia. The fundamentalists I have in mind are Orthodox Jews, whose success in suppressing charges of child sexual abuse has extended even to manipulation of the secular justice system in places like Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York – yet whose victims rarely benefit from the kind of public scrutiny applied to the survivors of parallel horrors in Muslim societies.

Take the case of Rabbi Israel Weingarten. In 2009, Weingarten (a Satmar Hasid) was confronted in a U.S. federal courtroom by the daughter he had sexually abused over a seven-year period that had begun when she was barely ten years old. That trial – including Weingarten’s conviction and 30-year sentence – got plenty of tabloid coverage in nearby New York City, particularly when the rabbi insisted on personally cross-examining his daughter, an emotional assault the victim found “cruel…like being molested again.”

So far, the story sounds very similar to that of the Afghan mullah. But much about the Weingarten case went unreported in the press. Readers did not learn that Weingarten had been publicly accused of child molestation 7 years before he was finally charged – nor that local authorities and New York State prosecutors, in a county subject to strong ultra-Orthodox political influence, had steadfastly ignored his crimes. In fact, when a panel of rabbis awarded Weingarten sole custody of all six of his minor children in 2002 – after his ex-wife testified to his sexual abuse of one of the daughters – a Rockland County family court meekly rubber-stamped their ruling, while even Child Protective Services personnel declined to intervene. Only years later, when his victim – then a young woman who had left Orthodoxy – took her case all the way to a U.S. Attorney’s office did Weingarten finally face justice, and then only because her rapes by her father had also taken place in foreign countries, making them federal as well as state crimes. None of this news was fit to print.

And there was more. The press also failed to report the Hasidic community’s massive campaign to silence Weingarten’s victim, though much of it was detailed in documents filed with the federal court by Weingarten’s own attorneys. These records show that rabbinic judges in the U.S., Belgium and Israel had all turned a deaf ear to the victim’s pleas for years, and that when – in defiance of their edicts – the victim took her case to a secular courtroom, her community orchestrated a slander campaign that included testimonials from two of the girl’s former teachers (and one fellow student) denouncing her as “a constant liar” and “actress,” while other written statements accused the girl of promiscuity, and her mother (who had tried to protect her) of mental illness and a history of child abuse. Even after Weingarten’s conviction, local Orthodox rabbis publicly campaigned on his behalf – another fact that went unmentioned in press accounts.

In other words, while the Afghan mullah’s rape of a ten-year-old was reported – correctly – within the larger context of a religious community’s repression of sex abuse victims, and of the influence of political Islam on Afghan justice, the remarkably similar story of Rabbi Weingarten’s sex crimes reached the public shorn of every fact that might imply a religion-based cover-up. No mention of the baneful role of Orthodox rabbinic courts in sex abuse cases. No reference to community-wide efforts to silence victims. Nothing at all about the apparent ability of this fundamentalist community to manipulate New York state courts and child welfare officials.

This last point is particularly noteworthy because the Weingarten case is hardly the only time such influence has been brought to bear. In 2000, the Brooklyn District Attorney abandoned his case against Rabbi Solomon Hafner – a Hasidic tutor charged with 96 counts of child sexual abuse – after a panel of Orthodox rabbis, using evidence ranging from flimsy to fabricated, quietly pressured his office to drop the charges. His newly-elected successor, Kenneth Thompson, has himself recently been accused of soft-pedaling sex crimes prosecutions in Brooklyn’s large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community – a charge he denies. But even now, the media have yet to tackle the details of the Hafner cover-up, which was mentioned in an AP story in 2002 but has never surfaced in any New York periodicals except for the small-circulation Brooklyn Eagle. (Which devoted most of the story to the denials of D.A. officials.)

How do I know all this if it isn’t being reported? Well, I know it mainly because I’m an Orthodox Jew, and because – as a writer and a lawyer – I’ve been working for years with victims of sex abuse. In fact, public ignorance of abuse cover-ups among Orthodox Jews has troubled me for so long that I finally published a book on the subject. I called it Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities – “shonda” being the Yiddish word for “scandal” or “shame,” and thus an apt way to characterize both the Orthodox community’s way of shaming victims into silence and the scandal of its complicity in sexual abuse as a result of protecting the perpetrators.

But I also know about these scandals because I care to know. And that is why I’ve taken the trouble to specify where you will, and where you probably won’t, learn about Orthodox Jewish sex abuse cover-ups. The plight of sex abuse victims reaches the public only to the extent that people who know the truth are willing to press the issue. Abuse victims in religious communities, in particular, must often depend on their coreligionists – therapists, clergy, lawyers, activists – to break the silence that far too often protects their assailants, exposing the patterns that make such abuse infuriatingly predictable and depressingly under-noticed. Until we do at least that much, the media will continue to focus on safe targets (like Muslim clerics in Afghanistan) while more Weingarten and Hafner scandals slip through the fingers of local law enforcement and evade the sort of press coverage they deserve. And the betrayed victims will go on multiplying – right on our doorsteps.

And if you’re not an Orthodox Jew? If you’re not, in fact, a member of any religious community? Then you can play your part by refusing to accept the convenient double standard that condemns the role of Islam in repressing sex abuse victims, but ignores the same sort of cover-ups when they occur in your own cities or neighborhoods and are promoted by a less demonized clergy.

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