Study finds widespread history of sexual abuse among formerly Orthodox
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Study finds widespread history of sexual abuse among formerly Orthodox

(Raw Herring/Flickr)

(JTA) — While Jews are no more likely to be sexually abused than other Americans, individuals who have left the Orthodox community are more than four times as likely to have been molested as children than the general population, a new study has found.

The study, by two Orthodox Jewish researchers, surveyed more than 300 participants over a three-year period. Its authors — Dr. David Rosmarin of Harvard and Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University — said their report was an attempt to address a lack of research on the prevalence of sexual abuse in the Jewish community.

While the rate of abuse was higher among formerly Orthodox individuals, Rosmarin and Pelcovitz also found that abuse was “associated with significantly lower levels of intrinsic religiosity and lower levels of religious observance” among victims who chose to remain part of the Orthodox community.

“This report supports the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen that indicates a close link between abuse in a religious context and the subsequent rejection of that community, its practices, values and often everything it stands for,” said Manny Waks, the founder of Tzedek, an Australian advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse. “This is proof for what he already knew. I’ve met many people who were religious, especially within the ultra-Orthodox community, who left because of sexual abuse.”

Rosmarin is director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. According to the study, formerly Orthodox individuals were substantially more likely to report abuse than those who remain part of the community — perhaps an obvious point given the inhibitions regarding speaking out in tight-knit communities. Various haredi Orthodox organizations have debated in recent years whether and how to report child abusers to law enforcement agencies.

Among the participants in the study, 100 were Orthodox from birth, 98 became Orthodox later in life, 138 were non-Orthodox and 36 were raised Orthodox and later left. According to Rosmarin, this included Hasidic respondents from the more insular Brooklyn communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park.

The study appears in the July 2018 issue of the  Child Abuse & Neglect journal.

While Rosmarin said he hasn’t fully fleshed out the causal relationship between abuse and the abandonment of religion, he believes the study “was pretty conclusive” that there is one.

It seemed to back up previous research showing that “the experience of sexual abuse interferes with people’s spiritual lives,” an effect not only limited to the formerly Orthodox, he said.

“An Orthodox [victim] who grew up Orthodox and is still Orthodox is less likely to have strong levels of belief than their colleagues who haven’t been sexually abused,” Rosmarin said.

Some have expressed skepticism regarding the research by Rosmarin and Pelcovitz. While declining to comment on the study directly, Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, an organization that helps former haredim integrate into mainstream American life, said that while “we certainly see high rates of abuse reported by people” who have left the community, the decision to leave Orthodoxy was not necessarily due to the abuse itself.

Santo said the communal response to abuse was more significant than the declining religiosity brought on by the abuse itself.

“If someone experiences abuse as a child and told a parent who spoke to the school and nothing is done, it opens up a Pandora’s box of questions for them,” she said. “People who made the very difficult decision to leave ultra-Orthodoxy are leaving because its a place where their questions are not necessarily welcome.”

Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman, an expert on American haredi Orthodoxy, questioned the study’s methodology, telling JTA that he believed that the study undercounted haredim from the more insular Hasidic movements, especially as much of the questioning was done online.

The connection between abuse and the abandonment of religion was also not particularly simple, Heilman said, calling it a chicken and egg scenario.

Those who are already “on the borderline of ‘deviance’ are much more liable to be the subject of abuse because the abusers figure these people are already borderline and are less likely to be believed if they say something,” he said.

Heilman used “deviance” in the sense of individuals who deviate from the religious norms of their religious communities, which often include shunning secular education, limiting social contact with non-haredim and dressing according to distinct rules of modesty.

Waks, who grew up within the Chabad Hasidic community and was molested as a child, said that when abuse occurs within a religious context in places such as synagogues and ritual baths, subsequent cover-ups by insular religious communities lead victims to lose “all belief in the so-called religious leaders.”

Rosmarin said he has spoken to patients who were abuse victims and did not feel comfortable speaking about their experiences with members of their haredi communities. As a result, he said, such victims never receive the kind of validation they need to cope with their trauma. This lack of validation only compounds the typical religious doubts, such as questioning God’s justice and asking how God could allow such things to happen.

Yechiel, an abuse victim living in the New York tristate area who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, described how a yeshiva classmate groomed and abused him for a number of years while teachers and administrators ignored the warning signs.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody because I didn’t know if I would be believed,” he said. “Looking back now, there were so many clues my rabbis could have picked up. I feel like they were purposefully naive. The only answer is they wanted to cover it all up. That really affects me.”

Yechiel began losing respect for the community and its leaders, and said the only reason he is still formally religiously observant is for the sake of his wife and children. While he has built his own personal relationship with God, “the actual practices of religion” have become incredibly difficult.

“I struggle with Shabbat and a lot of halachot [Jewish laws],” he said. “Many rules are too much for me.”

As for those who have left Orthodox Judaism behind, Yechiel said that he fully understands their decision and believes they will be judged more favorably by God than the rabbis and communal leaders.

“It’s completely not their fault” that they left, he said.

According to Meyer Seewald, executive director of Jewish Community Watch, a New York-based victims advocacy group, the tendency of insular religious groups to cast doubt on victims’ claims and defend alleged abusers has had far-reaching effects on children who were molested.

“If you had a community that had a leader that called on people to come forward and said ‘we believe you and will protect you,'” Seewald said, “I believe 150 percent that people wouldn’t be leaving in the way that they are.”