One 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.