Political Animal


May 12, 2012 7:57 AM The scandal of sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox communities — and how secular authorities enable same

By Kathleen Geier

Sexual abuse is a terrible thing, whenever and wherever it occurs. But combine it with religion, and it tends to be even more of a toxic brew. When the abuser enjoys an exalted status that is religiously derived, and then exploits his spiritual authority over members of his faith community by sexually assaulting them, the sense of shock and betrayal on the part of the victims can be spiritually and psychically shattering.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the victims and their families are often silenced and intimidated by the predator’s spiritual status, and that even if they report the abuse to religious authorities, more often than not the knee-jerk reaction of said authorities is to protect the abuser and assist him in covering up his crimes. Thus the extreme power disparities between predator and victim in these cases, and the secrecy and cover-ups surrounding the abuse, practically guarantee that the abuse will continue unabated.

The most recent example of this horrifying phenomenon that has come to light involves sexual abuse among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. In a groundbreaking series of stories, the New York Times has reported that, within ultra-Orthodox communities, sexual abuse victims and their families are frequently shunned, silenced, and stigmatized, in extraordinarily nasty ways. Here’s one disgusting but by no means atypical example:

The first shock came when Mordechai Jungreis learned that his mentally disabled teenage son was being molested in a Jewish ritual bathhouse in Brooklyn. The second came after Mr. Jungreis complained, and the man accused of the abuse was arrested.
Old friends started walking stonily past him and his family on the streets of Williamsburg. Their landlord kicked them out of their apartment. Anonymous messages filled their answering machine, cursing Mr. Jungreis for turning in a fellow Jew. And, he said, the mother of a child in a wheelchair confronted Mr. Jungreis’s mother-in-law, saying the same man had molested her son, and she “did not report this crime, so why did your son-in-law have to?”

It’s bad enough that the reactions within ultra-Orthodox communities can be so toxic. But when secular elected officials collaborate with religious authorities to discourage victims from coming forward and give special treatment to the accused, it rises to the level of a five-alarm public scandal. And that is exactly what is going on here.

As the Times documents, longtime Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes has acceded to demands from politically powerful ultra-Orthodox leaders that sexual abuse cases be covered up and that accused sexual predators in the ultra-Orthodox community be given special treatment. Among other things:

— Hynes has given tacit support to the demand by ultra-Orthodox leaders that adherents “report allegations of child sexual abuse to district attorneys or the police only if a rabbi first determined that the suspicions were credible.” The ultra-Orthodox leaders have demanded that even professionals who are mandated by law to report suspected abuse, such as teachers, social workers, and medical personnel, go to a rabbi first.
— Hynes has also “taken the highly unusual step” of “declining to publicize the names” of defendants in sexual abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community.
— In addition, his office has extended generous plea bargains to ultra-Orthodox defendants and enabled them to get off with unusually light sentences for their very serious crimes.

Fortunately, there has been growing criticism of D.A. Hynes’ handling of these sex abuse cases. Yesterday, a spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that Bloomberg

“completely disagrees” with Mr. Hynes’s decision to not object to the position of an influential ultra-Orthodox advocacy group on reporting allegations of child sexual abuse.
“Any abuse allegations should be brought to law enforcement, who are trained to assess their accuracy and act appropriately,” said a spokesman for the mayor, Marc LaVorgna.

The leading Democratic candidates for mayor have also strongly criticized the Brooklyn D.A.’s office for its handling of these cases. Let’s hope that this is more than lip service, and that actions are taken to ensure that sexual abuse cases in ultra-Orthodox community are pursued vigorously, that the victims are encouraged to come forward, and that the accused are not given special treatment.

Interestingly, the handling of sexual abuse cases is not the only area in which secular authorities have extended special, and grossly unjust, treatment to the growing and powerful ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. Last year, reports came to light that public buses in Orthodox neighborhoods were forcing women to ride in the back, a practice that, thankfully, has apparently ended.

But it does given one pause: if elected officials look the other way when it comes to sexual abuse among the ultra-Orthodox and until recently allowed them to practice blatant, Jim Crow-like discrimination on its public buses, in what other ways might secular authorities be giving this community special treatment ? Those of us who care about the separation between church and state, or even just basic justice and fairness, have very good reasons to be deeply concerned.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Hedda Peraz on May 12, 2012 10:24 AM:

    All together now, let's raise our voice in song:
    "Give me that old time religion
    It was good for Hebrew children
    It's good enough for me"

    -Organized Religion- the bane of humanity.

  • c u n d gulag on May 12, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Why is it, Kathleen, that I suspect the authorities have been fine with turning a blind eye to the sexual and physical abuse of children when it comes to Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, religious leaders, but if it was Muslim religious leaders, they'd be hustled off to face charges at as close to the speed of light as humanly possible, and the front pages would be screaming "RAPE!!!" in "VJ Day!!!"-sized, bold type?

    Maybe it's just me...

    Another reason to keep church and state separate:
    If rape and sexual assault of children, women, and young, mentally handicapped adults, are ok with God's messengers, then the state need not wait for their God to punish them, but needs to throw the book at them NOW - and not their "Good Book(s)," but a Law Book!

    I suppose it's a comfort to Catholics everywhere that their church no longer owns the monopoly rights to having their religious leaders schtup children, women, and the mentally handicapped, and that at least, if nothing else, THAT, is inter-denominational.

    All of these sick feck's need to go to jail for a long, long, time - if not forever.
    They can pray for forgiveness in prison, as easily as at a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.
    Hell, even MORE easily - there will be less to distract them from their prayers.

    Oh, and pray for safety while you're in there, along with forgiveness - there's a whole lot of prisoners who hate child-feckers and child-abusers.

    And who's to say one of them might not want to role-play 'The Abusive Bishop/Rabbi/Imam, and the Acolyte' - where you play the acolyte, and he, the religious leader?
    Turn about of fair play, that, no?*

    *And no, I'm not advocating prison rape. That's as heinous as any other form of rape.

  • Crusty the ex-clown on May 12, 2012 11:11 AM:

    Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

  • schtick on May 12, 2012 11:16 AM:

    I wonder how much abuse goes on with those mega-bible thumpers? I bet as much, if not more than those self proclaimed messiahs in cults.

  • ComradeAnon on May 12, 2012 11:34 AM:

    I remember my first days in Insurance many years ago. "NEVER insure religious organizations for physical or sexual abuse."

  • Sean Scallon on May 12, 2012 11:41 AM:

    We'll see who gets tagged an anti-Semite first. As you will find, it's a lot easier going after the Catholics because they didn't have the kind of political clout the Hasidim does in Brooklyn. Oh, and if you want to start poking your noses into mosques, I would suggest you find an answer for the cultural imperialism charge not to mention arming oneself too since some Muslims take fatwas pretty seriously.

    The Catholic Church never had a monopoly on these crimes. Just ask the Boys Scouts or your local school district. Even religiously as we now find out.

  • SYSPROG on May 12, 2012 11:53 AM:

    These are the same 'conservatives' that bemoan the lack of 'family values'. Well if family values means taking advantage of and covering up crimes against those too young to speak out, then color me against those values. I am an old person and I was extremely fortunate to be raised by tolerant, Christian loving parents that actually TAUGHT me right from wrong and to ALWAYS speak up for those unable to. Good for the NYTimes!

  • martin on May 12, 2012 11:57 AM:

    I see a Very Special Episode Ripped From The Headlines of Law & Order: SVU next season.

    As for going after other religions, one of the persistent anti-muslim attacks is that Mohammed was a pedophile. I guess we have a monotheiastic trifecta now.

  • TCinLA on May 12, 2012 12:20 PM:

    One of the worst things that has happened to the Jews in both America and Israel is their refusal to confront the insanity known as "Ultra-Orthodox." These medievalists are probably doing more to create anti-Semitism than anything else. These NYC ultras have been found committing welfare fraud to get money so their men can sit around all day "studying" Torah (and breeding a child a year for the welfare rolls), and they weren't prosecuted. The only thing "special" about these people is their proclivity for criminality.

  • DRF on May 12, 2012 12:31 PM:

    I hadn't been aware of the B110 bus controversy. I understand the religious rules that mandate the separation of men and women,but my immediate question is: why are the women relegated to the back of the bus? Why aren't the men moving to the back? The optics of forcing women to sit in the back are horrible; this obviously conjures up images of the Jim Crow South. It seems to me that, if these rules were really intended to be purely about religious rules, and didn't reflect a certain degree of sexism and even misogyny, then women would either be required to sit in front or men and women would be required to sit on opposite sides of the buses.

    REligious extremists of all stripes insist on rules supposedly designed to "protect" women from the urges of men, but these rules inevitably bind, restrict and humiliate women, while the men are traditionally allowed to ignore the rules with women outside their communities.

  • bluestatedon on May 12, 2012 12:33 PM:

    How ironic, given the constant yammering from Judeo-Christian rightwing fundamentalists and their stooges in the GOP about the imminent threat of Sharia Law.

  • bluestatedon on May 12, 2012 12:36 PM:

    "These NYC ultras have been found committing welfare fraud to get money so their men can sit around all day "studying" Torah..."

    The same thing has been going on in Israel for a number of years; basically, it's welfare for fundamentalists. The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel have had the Israeli government—and politics in general—by the throat for quite a while, which is the biggest reason that settlements continue to be built.

  • jprichva on May 12, 2012 2:31 PM:

    "One of the worst things that has happened to the Jews in both America and Israel is their refusal to confront the insanity known as "Ultra-Orthodox." These medievalists are probably doing more to create anti-Semitism than anything else. These NYC ultras have been found committing welfare fraud to get money so their men can sit around all day "studying" Torah (and breeding a child a year for the welfare rolls), and they weren't prosecuted. The only thing "special" about these people is their proclivity for criminality."

    I know these people well; I taught secular subjects at one of the yeshivas in Brooklyn for some years. What makes my blood boil about them is their belief that screwing over the goyim is no sin; the only people whose sensibilities matters are other Jews, and not even them unless they're Orthodox. This is why there are so many repeated scandals among them, mostly monetary but also sexual or abusive---because if it's done to someone outside their world, it simply doesn't count.

  • Shantyhag on May 12, 2012 2:50 PM:

    Could you please hyperlink the original NY Times article?

  • Kathryn on May 12, 2012 3:36 PM:

    Does anybody know if the Mormons believe, as apparently the ultra-orthodox Jewish do, that it's fine to screw over non Mormons, as the orthodox Jewish group believes about outsiders? Some comments I've read regarding Romney, who has been lying his ass off since declaring himself a candidate for president this election cycle, seem to indicate a similar honesty deficit amongst Mormons when dealing with non Mormons. Is there any truth to that?

    Quite honestly, I have never witnessed a more dishonest candidate, including his campaign apparatus, than Mitt Romney.

  • Col Bat Guano on May 12, 2012 6:49 PM:

    Reason #6794 that organized religion needs to end.

  • castanea on May 12, 2012 7:07 PM:


    I have lived in Utah for eight years of my adult life. Although I don't doubt that some Mormons hold beliefs such as you described, I would not say that, in my experience, it is a widespread characteristic among member of the LDS church.

    Perhaps the reason that it is not widespread is because on some level, Mormons see all Gentiles as being potential converts and Mormons crave mainstream acceptance, as opposed to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who tend to remain in tight, "us-vs-them" communities.

  • Epicurus on May 14, 2012 10:35 AM:

    I am disgusted, but not surprised. The RC church, the ultra-Orthodox community, just as bad as any so-called "cult." Leaders who take on the authority to control all aspects of their followers' lives? Not a religion, but a dangerous cult. And for DA Hynes to bow down to these so-called leaders? Typical...when the hell are we going to stop electing judicial authorities?? Please...we're in the 21st century, let's start acting that way.