MONTREAL — Statistically, child sexual abuse is no more or less common among haredi Jews than any other part of the population.
The trouble, argues Amy Neustein, is that to come forward about it within the haredi community and its insular enclaves almost invariably means ostracism, shunning, shame and even banishment.
Those were among the points made by Neustein, who is Orthodox herself and an expert on child sexual abuse, in an interview she gave for a Jewish-focused episode of Sex Scandals in History, a four-part series by Cogent/Bender Productions that aired in Canada last month on Vision TV.
The second segment, directed by Toronto’s Alan Mendelsohn, was called Wall of Silence and centred on allegations of pedophilia that occurred within haredi communities in Winnipeg and Brooklyn.
“These are issues that upset the balance – the homeostasis – of those communities, and that is why they cannot be tolerated,” Neustein said in a recent telephone interview from Fort Lee, N.J., where she lives. “The worst thing you can do is to disrupt that balance.”
Neustein, who has a PhD in sociology, has personal experience with the subject. In 1986, she lost custody of her six-year-old daughter in a court system that she says punished her for “trying to protect my daughter from abuse” allegedly committed by her father.
Since then, Neustein spent years overcoming the trauma and has written a book, 2005’s From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers are Running from the Family Courts – and What Can Be Done About It, which she co-authored with lawyer Michael Lesher, also an Orthodox Jew, and edited 2009’s Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals, a collection of essays by rabbis, educators, lawyers and psychotherapists on sexual abuse by Jewish clergy.
Both are considered landmark works.
Within haredi communities, Neustein said, child sexual abuse and pedophilia can happen anywhere: at home by a parent, in yeshiva by a teacher, in shul by a rabbi or bar mitzvah tutor, or even at the mikvah.
“In nine out of 10 cases, if the child tells a parent, the parent will say: ‘You’re making up stories!’” Neustein said.
And in the rare case where the child is believed, it’s the whole family that is punished, Neustein said. “Insular communities have to work smoothly, so they cannot tolerate anything that might disrupt or divide them.”
Neustein said families that threaten to go to the police to report sex abuse are coerced into having a rabbinic court deal with the charges, but such courts invariably force the families to back down or face total community approbation and/or banishment.
“The perpetrator is protected,” Neustein said, while the abused go on to live in torment, shame and guilt, or perhaps even to eventually become abusers themselves.
Or, she said, they might have severe marital troubles and other problems, such as substance abuse.
“I’ve been scolded many times,” Neustein said. “They ask: ‘Why are you scolding us, washing our linen in public?’”
Neustein was encouraged that in Canada, at least, a “first big step” was being taken by having a TV documentary bring the issue to light. Last February, Rabbi Nachum Rosenberg, a haredi rabbi from Brooklyn who has spent the last decade fighting sex abuse within his own community, spoke in Montreal. Neustein was certain that considering the significant number of haredi Jews who reside in Montreal, the very same issues of child sex abuse that exist in her country, Israel and elsewhere, exist here, too.
“It’s only logical,” she said.