Saturday, November 22, 2003

Ragsdale: More faith communities struggle with alleged child sexual abuse

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register - November 22, 2003
American Jews have joined Catholics and United Methodists on the list of U.S. denominations that are wrestling with how to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse.
This year, the Rabbinical Council of America joined the other three Jewish denominations in voting to report allegations of child abuse to the police.
Prompted in part by the case of a rabbi, whose appearance in Des Moines was cancelled earlier this month, the rabbinical council reversed a long-standing Orthodox practice of protecting accused rabbis or trying to take care of scandal internally. The organization's ethics policy is being rewritten with the help of mental health professionals and survivors of clergy sexual misconduct.
It's a huge step forward for a faith tradition with a history of persecution. That history undoubtedly contributed to an ancient Jewish prohibition called a Mesirah, a mandate that no Jew should betray another Jew to civil authorities.
The urge to stifle scandal and preserve the status quo has been a common reaction for congregations that are confronted by allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy. But it's a bad choice that ill-serves everyone involved - the victims, the accused, the congregation and the community.
Resorting to secrecy got the Boston Catholic Archdiocese in trouble, because when 50 years of accumulated accusations of sexual misconduct poured out over six months, it exaggerated the scope of the problem.
A similar reaction by a Winnipeg, Canada, Jewish congregation to allegations of child sexual abuse has permanently scarred the synagogue, the victims, their families and the alleged abuser.
Beth El Jacob Synagogue on Nov. 13 cancelled the appearance of New York Rabbi Ephraim Bryks because of an e-mail campaign to alert Iowans that Bryks was accused of molesting children nearly 20 years ago when he was the leader of a Canadian synagogue and Jewish day school.
Like the Boston Catholic cases, the charges are decades old.
Like the Catholic cases, synagogue leaders did their best to hush things up.
Instead of immediately asking police or child and family services to investigate, they held an internal "investigation." A number of meetings were held which reportedly disintegrated into yelling matches between the families of the victims and the rabbi's supporters.
Winnipeg social services agencies didn't get the case until later, after the congregation had taken sides and possibly victims had been intimidated. No criminal charges were filed. But investigators said Bryks' actions were inappropriate and unprofessional.
Bryks has always denied he did anything wrong. He left Canada in 1990 and settled in New York where he worked as a principal and a teacher. This year he resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America after some members sought his ouster.
Victoria Polin, founder, and Na'ama Yehuda, advisory board member of The Awareness Center, an international organization dedicated to addressing sexual abuse in Jewish communities, have said that Jews carry an extra burden when it comes to going public with a sex scandal.
"Over the years there have been many reasons why the Jewish community kept silent about sexual crimes committed by individuals in our community," Polin wrote on her Web site "There is a large number of hate groups that would love to promote their propaganda on their Web pages and in publications by posting information about Jews who molest. Their eagerness is a reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and thriving."
Additionally, some fervently Orthodox congregations feel bound by the Mesirah, that no Jew should betray another Jew to civil authorities.
The prohibition arose because Jews have lived under autocratic governments and biased judicial systems for much of their history. Informing could lead to dangerous persecution of the entire Jewish community.
Congregations relied on the judgment of special Jewish courts to settle disputes and deal out punishment. While those courts still exist, their power is limited, according to Rabbi David Jay Kaufman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines.
"These special courts operated with authorities from civil authorities," Kaufman said. "They dealt with Jewish law, which many times was more stringent than secular law. It was useful for keeping community social structures intact."
While the local Jewish community is still mindful of anti-Semitism and avoiding scandal, it would be unconscionable for anyone in the Jewish faith tradition to hesitate to report a child abuse situation today, Kaufman said.
"In some states, clergy are required to report suspicions of child abuse," Kaufman said. "As far as I'm concerned, it is a good thing. My primary concern is for the children. The people who do this kind of thing usually don't have just one victim, so if you don't do something to stop them, you are endangering other children. I can't think of a reason that would morally or ethically make it allowable not to report."
The work of Jewish leaders who share Kaufman's attitude toward reporting child abuse and the Orthodox community's decision to embrace a reporting policy show an "ongoing maturation process for the community in general to have the courage and determination to act aggressively against problems which have always been with us," said Rabbi Mark Dratch, who authored the Rabbinical Council resolution. 

"A lot of factors are forcing us to deal with (child abuse) to assert leadership and not just to look for cover," Dratch told The Jewish Week. "We need to do what is necessary for the welfare of the community and the integrity of the Torah."

Friday, November 14, 2003

Rabbi's visit canceled amid abuse allegations

Rabbi's visit canceled amid abuse allegations
The Jewish community in D.M. received e-mails accusing the man of a history of child abuse.
By SHIRLEY RAGSDALE, Register Religion Editor
Des Moines Register - November 14, 2003
A Des Moines orthodox synagogue has canceled the appearance of a prominent New York rabbi scheduled to speak this weekend, after the Des Moines Jewish community was barraged with e-mails suggesting the guest speaker had a history of child abuse.
Rabbi Ari Sytner of Beth El Jacob Synagogue had invited Rabbi Ephraim Bryks of Richmond Hill, N.Y., to speak at an event today. Bryks had spoken twice before in Des Moines at Sytner's invitation.
Members of a victims advocacy network found the announcement on and sent messages to the newspaper and members of the Iowa Jewish community, said a member of that network.
Bryks would not speak to a Register reporter Thursday, but in a May article in a New York newspaper denied the allegations, which are more than 20 years old. Despite the fact that he's never been charged with child abuse, Bryks said in the article that the allegations are like a ghost trailing him from city to city, school to school.
And to Des Moines.
"Rabbi and Mrs. Bryks have visited our community twice before in the last few years (before we knew of the allegations), and they were welcomed, loved and respected by all that met them," Sytner said Wednesday in a written statement.
"Nonetheless, I still have absolutely no basis for determining this man's guilt or innocence, and unfortunately with the program scheduled for this weekend, time is not on our side to further investigate. As a result, I have decided to cancel Rabbi Bryks' trip to Des Moines until we can further clarify the matter."
When approached about the e-mail messages earlier this week, Sytner said he believed it was a case of mistaken identity, noting that Ephraim Bryks is a common Jewish name. After Sytner received forwarded e-mails from "all over the country," he decided to cancel Bryks' trip.
One of the early e-mails came from the executive director and founder of The Awareness Center, an international organization dedicated to advocacy and education on sexual abuse in Jewish communities. Founder Victoria Polin said Bryks is one of about 100 alleged abusers whose names are posted on the center's Web site. 
"Pedophilia has no religion," Polin said. "Some Jewish communities are 30 years behind the times in terms of addressing sexual abuse. In some Orthodox communities, they do not watch TV or read the newspapers. All they know is what the rabbi tells them. Someone has to speak out because nobody listens to the victims."
The allegations stem from a period in the late 1980s when Bryks was the leader at a Winnipeg, Canada, Jewish day school and congregation, according to The Jewish Tribune, a publication of B'nai Brith Canada.
According to various media reports, Bryks was accused of abusing five Winnipeg students, including a 17-year-old boy who committed suicide in 1994 after talking about the alleged abuse with his parents and police.
A 1988 report by the government agency, Winnipeg South Child and Family Services on a 14-year-old girl's allegations, said there was no evidence to support a finding of criminal wrongdoing, but said Bryks' interaction with female students was inappropriate. A year later, parents of a young boy took a sex abuse complaint to Winnipeg police. The allegations were investigated, but there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary.
Bryks left Canada in 1990, relocating in New York, where the allegations blocked his hiring by at least one congregation and forced his ouster from at least one other, according to the New York newspaper.
Attempts have been made to remove Bryks from the Queens, N.Y., Va'ad Harabonim, a council of rabbis that makes important decisions in the borough.
Earlier this year, Bryks resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America under criticism. In June, the 1,200-member Rabbinical Council voted to report acts or suspicions of child abuse to the police, a break from a longstanding practice of protecting errant rabbis rather than reporting them to civil authorities, according to reports in The Jewish Week newspaper.