There are two questions New York-based child psychologist David Pelcovitz is often asked by child protective service professionals about the Orthodox community that makes him cringe.
“The first question they usually ask me, is, ‘What is it about you guys that you care more about the perpetrator than the victim?… This is when I want to take my yarmulke off,” said Pelcovitz, who spoke Sunday to roughly 100 educators and concerned parents at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation about the impact of sexual abuse on children and how to protect them from it.
“The second question they ask… is, ‘What is it about you guys that you seem to have a higher rate of sibling sexual abuse? Older brothers with younger sisters? We’re seeing this as an epidemic in the New York community, and I know it happens here… we have to be aware of that. Part of it is that we need to do better sexual education with our kids. We don’t talk to our kids about sexuality.”
The presentation by Pelcovitz, a highly regarded clinical psychologist who specializes in childhood trauma and abuse, and is co-editor of Breaking the Silence: Child Abuse in the Jewish Community, came just a few months after Stephen Joseph Schacter, who taught at Eitz Chaim Schools between 1986 and 2004 and what is now Robbins Hebrew Academy from 2004 to 2006, was charged with possession of child pornography, gross indecency, sexual interference, sexual exploitation and sexual assault.
In addition, David Prashker, a former director of Leo Baeck Day School, pleaded guilty in California last month to possession of child pornography and served 100 days in jail. In 2008, Prashker wrote and posted sexually explicit poetry online, which led to his resignation from Leo Baeck.
Offering tips on prevention, Pelcovitz said it’s important to educate children about the dangers of sexual abuse in the same way parents would teach children about what to do in the event of fire or how to cross a busy intersection.
“Don’t scare your kids… Research shows that you want there to be a little bit of anxiety so that they take it seriously, but not so much that the anxiety becomes incapacitating. The guiding force in these situations is to set it up in a way that is no different from the way that we teach children about fire safety at Chanukah or water safety in the summer,” he said.
Pelcovitz said speaking to kids about abuse can’t be a “one-shot” lecture, adding that the lesson will be most effective if parents give them scenarios to consider, such as “What happens if your uncle tickles you past the point of comfort?”
Pelcovitz offered a script to help broach the subjects with children. “Your body belongs to you… you have a right to say who touches you and how. If someone touches you in a way that makes you feel funny, it is OK to say no,” he said.
BAYT spiritual leader Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who introduced Pelcovitz, addressed arguments often heard in the frum community that perpetrators shouldn’t be reported, because that’s an act of mesira, which refers to handing a Jew over to outside authorities.
“I want to make it very clear that this is not a correct position to take. When there is a fire, you call the fire department. When there is a medical emergency, you call the hospital. When a person is sexually abusing a child, you call the Canadian authorities. There are no ifs, ands or buts. There is no Halachah of mesira involved. And I am prepared… to challenge any rosh yeshiva, and argue from the halachic standpoint, that they are absolutely mistaken, 100 per cent,” Rabbi Korobkin said.
“We have to err on the side of caution for the sake of these innocent neshamahs [souls] and not worry about the perpetrators, no matter who they are in the community, no matter how highly regarded they are in the community.”