Home Perspectives Opinions Communal teshuvah for the victims of sexual abuse

Communal teshuvah for the victims of sexual abuse

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We need to break the silence on sexual abuse, the author writes. (Shutterstock photo)

Stephen Joseph Schacter – the former day school teacher currently facing sexual assault, sexual interference, sexual exploitation and gross indecency charges – is not the first, or last, person from Toronto’s Jewish community who will be charged for committing sexual crimes. The past few years have seen several men from our community stand trial for similar acts. In this season of reflecting on, and accounting for, our past misdeeds, where are the public apologies to, and the outpouring of support for, the victims in these cases? Where is the public reckoning with the ways in which the community has permitted or enabled abuse?

A common theme in these types of cases is that the abuses span both decades and denominations. For example, the accounts of the three men who testified at the Schacter trial occurred between 1980 and the early 2000s. That is over 20 years of sexual acts allegedly committed against innocent and vulnerable children. And these are only the three victims that we know about because they have courageously come forward. The likelihood is that there are others who, understandably, are unable, or not prepared to, bear the ordeal of a trial and its aftermath.

Schachter taught in several day schools of various denominations. This is a known practice where those who prey upon children move around and collect their victims as they go. There is also a practice known as “passing the trash,” where administrators in power who learn about abuse committed by a teacher, dismiss the teacher without warning other institutions about that person’s behaviour. Even upon learning that the teacher has been hired elsewhere, no warning is given. A recent report following an investigation into abuses committed by a former staff member of the Ramaz Academy in Manhattan found several instances where those in power overlooked reports of misconduct brought to them by parents. The lesson is that to stop the cycle of abuse, dismissal, relocate and reoffend, we need to sound the alarm both internally in our communities and externally, to law enforcement and to the abuser’s newfound community, so that we protect children from becoming future victims.

Struggling with our mistakes is about more than creating a better way forward. For a truly better future we need to understand how our past led us to where we are today and make a firm commitment that specifies how we will behave differently. This is the essence of teshuvah. While progress has been made in some institutions regarding the prevention and intervention of sexual abuse, the silence about the past persists. There has yet to be an investigation or accounting into how child sexual abuse in Toronto’s Jewish day schools has occurred, including who knew what and when, and what was done about it. This knowledge is necessary to inform, craft and enforce evidence-based policies and procedures around child safety and protection. While silence about the past may stem from the fear of tarnishing reputations, the research on sexual violence committed in faith communities shows that silence is dysfunctional and counterproductive. Silence serves to further damage the community itself and the community’s image.

READ: FROM YONI’S DESK: WHEN EVIL FESTERS IN THE DARKNESS

Fulfilling the steps of teshuvah includes apologizing to the ones we have harmed after regretting, renouncing and confessing our actions. In understanding the ways in which the wider community has failed victims, we also find the role we can play in engaging in communal repentance. It has been disheartening to hear silence from rabbis and other community leaders in response to cases of abuse. Why have they not publicly supported victims? We cannot simply struggle with the idea of child sexual abuse or other #MeToo accounts in theory – unfortunately, there are plenty of stories for us to deal with in practice. We do not need to wait to be told to have empathy for survivors or to reach out and offer support. We can become vocal about protesting abuse, abusers and their enablers, and protecting children and the wider community on our own. It would be nice if these values were demonstrated at the top.

I am grateful to the brave survivors in the Schacter case for coming forward. They have done more than their part in attempting to protect Toronto’s Jewish children from abuses across all denominations. And they have done so at great risk to themselves. It should not be the job of those who have suffered to awaken us to the dangers in our community. Imagine how it must feel when they do it anyways and we respond by looking away.