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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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We have to protect our kids, not criminals

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Rahel Bayar and Meira Bayar Ellias

 

We are sisters. One of us is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor.  One of us is a licensed social worker who has worked clinically with victims of sexual abuse and is also a victim of sexual assault.  One of us is a member of the Orthodox community.  One of us was a member of the Orthodox community.  We are writing about the case of Evan Zauder.

Evan Zauder was a teacher at Yeshivat Noam in New Jersey.  He worked for more than a decade with children through youth groups and summer camps. In January 2013, Zauder pled guilty to transportation, receipt and distribution of child pornography, possession of child pornography and enticement of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity.  He admitted committing sex crimes against children.

More than 50 letters were sent on Zauder’s behalf to the federal judge determining his sentence. Pillars of the Orthodox community: rabbis, teachers, friends and family members asked the judge for leniency. On this list are many names we know peripherally or personally – intelligent, kind and valued members of their communities. They are not evil. Yet the words they used were not intelligent, kind or of value.  In their own words many referred to Zauder’s “mistake” or “struggle” when they wrote about his crimes. They called him a “good and decent person who lost control.” They laud the time he spent alone with students and campers, stating he was always “honourable, respectful and caring.”

These letters, available in the public domain, have provoked much comment with regard to the many “big names” who wrote them. They asked the judge to consider all that made Zauder an integral part of their community not only as an admitted child molester. They ignored the fact that he violated his own parole by accessing child pornography on a monitored computer. In making their case, they forget that the victims are more than just victims.

They are children.

Pedophilia, child molestation or child pornography are not heinous “activities.”  They are crimes. It is unconscionable to refer to Zauder’s “poor decision,” to state that now he knows “the error of his ways” and made a “grievous mistake.”  It is horrific that someone could state he watched Zauder interact with children and Zauder was always “honourable, respectful, caring and gentlemanly.”  These words minimize his acts.

Reading these letters we saw little consideration for the victims. We question those who praised Zauder’s restraint for the times he was alone with children and did not succumb. How does the writer know these children were safe? How could a child be comfortable coming forward when their role model and protector is on a list of people requesting leniency for Zauder? The question should not be how best to come to the aid of the predator but rather how we as a community can reach out, protect defenceless children and create a safe space where children are supported and not re-victimized by their community.

One of us was assaulted on a yeshiva class trip. While the teacher informed responded appropriately, other educators blamed me for the assault.  I left the program, and a prominent educator in the school called me a quitter, telling my parents I was a failure.  That moment was the start of a journey away from a toxic environment, away from Orthodoxy.

How many others have suffered in a similar manner? Perhaps if Zauder’s supporters were more aware of the harmful effects of their words we could stop this process of invalidating victims.

One of us remains Orthodox – but in trepidation.  When community members neutralize a perpetrator’s crimes by praising his “leadership qualities” they negate the seriousness of his crimes.  They allow misperceptions about child abuse to permeate our collective understanding. How can we trust our educators, schools, camps and leaders?

These letters give voice to this ongoing problem. The question must be asked: Who is of greater value to the community – our children or those who prey upon them?

These letters raise the likelihood that the next victim may not speak out.  We have a moral obligation to give our children a safe place to share.  We do not have a co-equal obligation to speak on behalf of our criminals.

 

This article previously appeared in The Jewish Standard

 

Rahel Bayar is a practicing attorney and former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor. She is the author of Pikuach Nefesh, To Save a Life: A Jewish Response to Domestic Violence,” (Ikkar Publishing,2003) and has lectured and facilitated numerous trainings on recognizing and preventing abuse within the Jewish community.

 

Meira Bayar Ellias, has worked with victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes in New York City through the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx and the Greenwich House Children’s Safety Project in Manhattan. While at Columbia University for her masters, her research focused on the effects of sexual abuse on members of the Orthodox community.

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