The False Flag of False Accusations in Sex Abuse Cases

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liarOne of the primary concerns in the orthodox Jewish community when discussing the issue of reporting sex abuse to the authorities is that inevitably there will be false accusations that will ruin the lives of innocent people. It is very scary to think that someone can be named as an abuser and before any evidence is presented the accused can be found guilty in the court of public opinion. In a community where the main currency is reputation and communal standing false accusations can have drastic consequences.

This is a good reason not to judge people before the facts are known and also a good argument against placing too much stock in reputation. Changing our approach on these issues would go a long way to making our communities safer places.

Whether concern over false accusations is a legitimate reason to require rabbinic approval before going to the authorities is a discussion for another time. I don’t see why should be any different than other non-orthodox Jewish communities, but again, not the discussion here.

The NY Times has a very (appropriately) one-sided article on the Baruch Lebovits and Sam Kellner situation. In short, Lebovits is a known sex abuser, he molested Kellner’s son, Kellner got permission from a rabbinic court to pursue Lebovits in criminal proceedings, and Lebovits was convicted. Kellner was a hero and symbol of strength in the victims advocates community. Then Kellner was convicted of obstruction for allegedly offering money for testimony and threatening to extort Lebovitz’s family. Kellner was charged and to add insult to injury, Lebovits’s conviction was overturned. He awaits retrial.

The Times quotes a rabbi who advised Kellner to go to the authorities as saying that if Kellner goes to jail it will have the effect of preventing future victims from coming forward. It’s hard enough to come forward in the community but it will be even harder if a strong advocate for victims of abuse finds himself in trouble with the law.

The merits of Kellner’s case notwithstanding, I think it could be argued that a conviction of Kellner would have the opposite effect. If one concern with reporting abuse to the authorities is the fear of false accusations, it is possible that seeing Kellner’s troubles with the law could mitigate this fear. Clearly, the law does not take kindly to those who are deceptive or dishonest when reporting allegations of abuse. Thus it stands to reason that we need not be terribly concerned that false allegations would occur frequently.

The Brian Banks case illustrates this same idea. Banks was a rising college football star when he plead guilty to rape. The accuser admitted to lying after Banks sat in jail for several years. Banks was released and now his accuser is being sued for millions of dollars. She will probably lose too.

It’s true that Banks was falsely accused and proponents of rabbinic go-betweens might point to the case to show how dangerous it can be to just go to the authorities without an independent investigation. However, the fact that the false accuser stands to lose millions of dollars in civil court, not to mention possible criminal prosecution actually serves as a huge deterrent. Certainly these kinds of consequences to false accusations will serve as a barrier to future false accusations.

The point is that false accusations happen from time to time. But when they do happen there are severe consequences. It’s unlikely that people would be willing to risk suffering those severe consequences when there is no basis for their accusation. We should not be afraid that these stories will chill allegations of abuse in our community. We should use these stories as examples of the fidelity of the criminal justice system and hopefully our community will encourage victims of abuse to come forward without being overly concerned with false accusations so that we can get to fixing this problem as quickly as possible.

Links: NY Times, Yahoo

  • Yerachmiel Lopin

    FACTUAL CORRECTION-

    You write: “Then Kellner was convicted of obstruction for allegedly offering money
    for testimony and threatening to extort Lebovitz’s family.”

    Kellner was NEVER CONVICTED. He has been kept in limbo for two years since his arrest awaiting trial. Right now his lawyers as pushing for a trial date and the Brooklyn DA is trying to push it off. I am certain of the facts. I have closely monitored this case. You can confirm my assertion on Webcrims, the NYS criminal justice data base (Case # 02538-2011) https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/webcrim_attorney/Login

    • I already fixed it . Sorry.

  • Well said. I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the fear of false accusations doesn’t come so much from a logical place as a place of fear and denial. I think people would rather think that there is something wrong with one kid than leaders in their community, and perhaps their community at large.

    I also find it fascinating that you see this at play in secular culture as well. Many places, from faculties of schools to entire small towns, go out of their way to either dismiss or even vilify victims.

    The difference is that secular culture has worked on building safeguards against this reaction. Much of Jewish, and especially Haredi, culture clearly has not.

  • Menachem Schloss

    Studies of child abuse allegations suggest that the overall rate of false accusation is under 10%, as approximated based on multiple studies. Of the allegations determined to be false, only a small portion originated with the child, the studies showed; most false allegations originated with an adult bringing the accusations on behalf of a child, and of those, a large majority occurred in the context of divorce and child-custody battles.
    http://books.google.ca/books?id=BggJjhbBJzwC&pg=PA23#v=onepage&q&f=false