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Ultra-Orthdox sex offenders rarely feel guilty over abuses, therapists say

It was evening in Jerusalem, time for Friday night prayers at a synagogue in the city’s Bukharim neighborhood. A boy sat down next to an adult man. Other worshippers started yelling to the boy to get up and move, said Yitzhak Rosenblum, who witnessed the incident. “Not there. Sit somewhere else,” they urged the boy, who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

They also spoke to the man. “They told him, in a joking way, ‘You know this is a shul here. It’s not …,’” Rosenblum recounts, but the warnings were not more explicit than that. They didn’t tell the boy that he’d been sitting beside a convicted sex offender. “Nothing happened, but the way they were laughing, it was as if they were talking to someone who stole gum from a store or something like that, not someone who sexually assaulted children,” Rosenblum says.

Rosenblum wasn’t all that surprised by the incident, which occurred a few years ago. Besides being a master’s student in criminology at Hebrew University, he is also Haredi – ultra-Orthodox – and a father of eight. He is very familiar with this atmosphere in which a sex offender is accepted with relative nonchalance.

It’s not necessarily a matter of evil or lack of caring, he says, but due to the glaring lack of knowledge in Haredi society about the severe consequences of sexual assault. Rosenblum is not just speculating. A research study he recently conducted reveals the cognitive processes that facilitate the sexual assault of children by Haredi assailants – processes that cause the assailants, and their society too, to see their actions as justified.

The study points to three key characteristics, he says: lack of knowledge on the part of the assailants as well as the victims and the society as a whole regarding sex, and especially regarding sexual assault; a perception of sexual assault as a halakhic prohibition, meaning that it is contrary to Jewish religious law, and less as a moral prohibition; and moral-religious justifications that absolve the perpetrator of responsibility and reduce the severity of the violation (in his eyes).

These conclusions come from interviews Rosenblum conducted with 10 therapists, half of them Haredi, who specialize in treating sexual assailants who come from that community. Some of these therapists have treated hundreds of abusers. “They know Haredi culture and all of its unique nuances, things a nonreligious person wouldn’t understand,” Rosenblum says.

In his research, Rosenblum essentially obtained access to the inner logic of thousands of Haredi abusers. And he found out that many of them are completely unaware that this is what they are.

In the absence of basic sexual knowledge, including regarding sexual assault and its implications, and in the absence of any discussion about the subject in Haredi schools, ultra-Orthodox families and Haredi media, the warning signs simply do not appear.

“A lot of abusers said they had no idea that there was anything wrong with what they did,” said one of the therapists interviewed for the study. “They thought it was like when siblings roughhouse with each other, that there could be sexual things too. They don’t understand the meaning of sexuality, what its purpose is, why this kind of abuse is such a serious violation.”

But it’s not just a lack of knowledge. The study reveals that the potential offender often gives weight almost exclusively to the religious-halakhic aspect of the deed and not to the moral aspect of doing horrific harm to another person. “They come to me when the thing that bothers them the most is the ‘spilled seed in vain,’” said one therapist. “That is what they are most concerned about, at least at first.”

The abuser views his action as a transgression between man and God. And the possibility of seeking forgiveness from God is another thing that enables the abuse (unlike transgressions between man and his fellow man, in which the other person’s forgiveness is needed).

“This is a mechanism that reassures them,” one therapist explained, noting that this also increases the risk that the person will become a repeat offender. “The next time he gets the urge, he’ll act on it, because his subconscious is basically telling him, ‘It turned out okay. You cried, you atoned for your sin, you asked God for forgiveness.’”

Other offenses, such as theft and murder, are seen as an offense against both man and God, i.e., something that cannot be atoned for just through fasting and prayers on Yom Kippur. But with sexual offenses, this angle is missing.

“This creates the illusion that there is no real violation of the other side,” Rosenblum says. “In Haredi society, sexual matters are not discussed, and if the subject does come up, it is only mentioned in halakhic or religious contexts and not in the context of morality and society. The related religious-halakhic literature is not studied.”

And when that is the case, the third characteristic – moral-religious justifications – seems almost inevitable. “If you’re not talking about sex and you’re not talking about sexual offenses and you’re not talking about legal consequences, then you’re also not talking from a moral standpoint about what it does to the victim,” said one therapist.

Other therapists described a similar problem. “The most significant thing is that the offender lives in a world where the question is what is forbidden and what is allowed, not what is the right thing morally, who am I hurting,” said one. “It’s not uncommon for such patients to struggle to understand just what offense they committed. They say, ‘Okay, I touched someone, but no homosexual intercourse took place, so where’s the prohibition here?’”

What happened in the dorm

The interviews Rosenblum conducted with the therapist were extensive and yielded a number of stories. Such as one about the dormitory of a well-known yeshiva where there was a serial sex offender. The principal took it upon himself to speak to one of the (Haredi) therapists. “He told me about a guy who ‘fools’ with boys,” he said. The therapist understood right away what was really happening and warned the principal to take action. But they decided to keep the student in the dorm.

“I was horrified, and realized there was nothing I could do,” the therapist said, adding that the principal’s behavior was in part a consequence of his Haredi education and lack of understanding of the issue.

And when the educational institutions don’t take a strong stand or do all they can to prevent abuse, the risk of someone who comes from this world committing such offenses is higher, said one therapist. Seven of the 10 therapists agreed, with one theorizing that the religious worldview could be more susceptible to errors of thinking in this regard.

Another problem is that the legal implications are perceived as less critical than the religious ones. “The presence of the halakhic aspect weakens and even neutralizes the legal aspect,” Rosenblum says.

“So the Haredi offender does not ascribe due importance to the fact that this is prohibited by civilian law.”

Offenders were found to use various psychological defense mechanisms, such as emotional detachment. “I don’t know what came over me,” said one. “I wasn’t myself in those moments.”

Another mechanism is to claim helplessness – “I have an area where I’m weak, I don’t know what to do. It’s stronger than me,” another explained. Others attributed their actions to the “evil impulse” or a “foolishness” that came over them. As one put it, “That’s not me. Do you really think I would hurt someone? That I would do such terrible things”?

Education, information needed

So the question is – what can be done? “I recommended that the Haredi school system create educational material to raise the awareness of the severe effects that sexual assault have on both the victims and the offenders themselves,” Rosenblum writes. “Today there is much more openness in the Haredi community to this subject than there was in the past, but most of the education refers to ‘being protected,’ i.e., how to guard against sexual assault.”

He says this is a beginning, but the other side must also be addressed – people have to be taught how not to commit sexual offenses. And this needs to be done with a lot of explanation and raising awareness of the serious consequences of sexual assault. “This information campaign needs to address all the aspects that were discussed in the study – religious, halakhic, legal, moral and social.”

But meanwhile, the problem remains serious. How serious? That is not easy to answer.

“There is a problem that must be understood and addressed,” says Dr. Inbal Wilamoski of Hebrew University, Rosenblum’s research adviser, who adds, “There are many stereotypes about Haredim … but there is sexual violence and pedophilia in every community.”

In the past decade, and especially in the last few years, significant changes have occurred in Haredi society’s attitude toward sexual offenses. The change may still be incremental, but awareness is steadily growing. For one thing, Haredi media have begun to report on cases of sexual assault, though they use softened language which lessens the severity of it. And various organizations have been created to address the subject, with teachers in some Haredi schools being taught to recognize the problem if they see it.

“We have permission from all the Haredi rabbis and leaders,” says one person involved who prefers to remain anonymous. “But it is verbal consent, on condition that everything is done quietly.”

So while there has certainly been progress, it appears that Haredi society is still a long way from declaring war on sexual offenses.

Source: Aaron Rabinowitz – HAARETZ