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Op-eds

Sexual abuse and the concept of teshuva

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A sexual offender is held to account. He or she has molested numerous children in their teaching position. The community shouts “Can’t the offender be allowed to do teshuva?”
by WENDY HENDLER AND ROZANNE SACK | Feb 22, 2018

Hearing this, the victim feels a pang of guilt and thinks: “Am I a cruel and vengeful person? Should I not believe in the principle of teshuva? Should I just let this go?” There is an automatic assumption by the community that a person will have done teshuva. It follows, then, that the offender should be welcomed back into the community and fully reintegrated with a clean slate.

But what is teshuva and how often is it completed in its entirety, as mandated by Jewish law?

The steps of teshuva require the offender to:

1.    Acknowledge that he or she has committed a wrong and to acknowledge the specific details of the wrong they have done;

2.    Feel remorse;

3.    Confess publicly;

4.    Ask for forgiveness from the victim;

5.    Make restitution to the extent that it is possible to do so; and

6.    Refrain from committing the wrongful act the next time the opportunity arises (Rambam).

This is not an easy task for anyone to accomplish, especially when it involves deeply-rooted, recurring behaviour. However, the accused must go through these steps to be accorded the renewed status of being in good standing with the community. Being punished by the civil authorities is not sufficient, and the essential requirements of teshuva remain in place. The point is not just about punishment but also about justice and deterrence.

Let’s look at the case in London of Mendy Levy, a man convicted and jailed for three years in 2013 for sexual assault on a teenager. Levy recently donated a Sefer Torah to Chabad in Golders Green. How do we think about teshuva in relation to this man?

According to Dr Shira Berkovits, director of Sacred Spaces, a cross-denominational initiative to create systemic solutions to abuse in Jewish institutions. “Humans cannot know what is in another’s heart, but we can look for signs that the teshuva is insincere, incomplete or being used as a manipulative tool to gain sympathy or access.”

So, we can – and must – take stock of the external signs. In the case of Levy, the following is apparent:

1.    He did not ever acknowledge that he repeatedly sexually assaulted a young girl from the age of 14 to 20;

2.    He denied all responsibility for his misdeeds, claiming it was a consensual affair;

3.    He did not confess publicly;

4.    He did not ask the victim for forgiveness;

5.    He was extremely reluctant to make restitution, only offering small amounts after intense pressure was put on him by his rabbi; and

6.    He did not manifest any signs of remorse, denying any wrongdoing on his part.

In failing to adhere to the very clearly stipulated steps to teshuva, Levy showed himself to be undeserving of re-acceptance into the community. And his donation of a Sefer Torah was nothing more than a highly manipulative attempt to raise his status in the community. It should never have been welcomed.

Says Berkovits: “The principles of admission and accountability articulated by the Rambam are at the core of sex offender treatment. True repentance and relapse prevention in cases of abuse means taking full responsibility for one’s actions, which may include turning oneself in to the authorities, apologising to victims and seeking qualified assistance to prevent relapse.

“A private apology to a clergyman or a perfunctory declaration of teshuva is simply insufficient. If individuals minimise prior actions, blame the victim or otherwise justify the abuse, they have not accepted responsibility.”

Berkovits highlights the typical behaviour of offenders who refuse to accept responsibility: “They are not on the professed road to recovery, for if they were, they would be the ones advocating for safeguards and support to help ensure that they never again harm another victim.”

While it is a noble quality to want to be forgiving and to give second chances, especially in light of the fundamental Jewish principle of teshuva, the sexual predator is a completely different animal.

In 2012, an essay titled Sexual misconduct and the question of rehabilitation and teshuva was posted online by Nachum Klafter, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and director of psychotherapy training at the University of Cincinatti in Ohio. He made mention of the following characteristics displayed by a sexual predator:

1.    Severe arrogance and lack of regard for others in general;

2.    Absolutely no remorse – they often feign remorse, but their behaviour – for example, continuing to lie, and threatening and intimidating their victims – reveals that, in fact, they feel no remorse;

3.    Make no attempt to stop their behaviour;

4.    Fabricate allegations against their victims;

5.    Threaten victims with retribution, humiliation and lawsuits in order to intimidate them and prevent them from reporting the situation;

6.    Extremely self-righteous and indignant;

7.    Superficially impressive;

8.    Pretend they are in love with the victim and that these loving feelings are unique and unprecedented, while in reality they are abusing that person – and may be doing the same to multiple victims;

9.    Have skilfully avoided numerous allegations and complaints of sexual misconduct over time through skilful lying and aggressive tactics; and

10.  Typically, there have already been multiple attempts at rehabilitation, all of which have failed.

While teshuva is available for every Jew, we need to know that sexual offenders have a very high rate of re-offending. The community’s obligation is, first and foremost, to protect its members. While we may cautiously allow the offender back into the community, we need to ensure our loved ones’ safety.

The consequences of the offender’s behaviour demand that there be strict conditions for re-integration. For example, a child molester can never be given access to children, a predatory doctor can never be given access to patients, an offending rabbi should not be leading communities, and a bar mitzvah teacher or sports coach should no longer work in any field where children are involved.

Measures taken by a community to safeguard its members from possible future incidents are not meant to be punitive, but are simply the necessary consequences of offending behaviour. These measures should involve a comprehensive plan formulated by a team of experts and concerned parties including a psychologist, social worker, community leader and others.

It is crucial for institutions to have robust policies and procedures in place around this issue. This will determine how they respond in these cases.

Re-integrating an offender into the community rests on two vital components. The first is overt compliance with the mandated steps of teshuva, which is generally easily identifiable. Where doubt exists, this would require some research. Secondly, the offender must be willing to fully co-operate with the task team and function within very strict parameters under careful supervision.

While it is our default mode to want to be forgiving, kind and compassionate, the primary principle guiding the actions of our Jewish community must be to protect the vulnerable among us. There is an explicit directive in the Torah to look after the victim, as it says in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): “G-d seeks out the pursued.”

Sexual abuse victims are amongst the most vulnerable members of our community. It is our sacred task to ensure the safety of our community and prevent future offences against new victims. A community that goes beyond the norm and takes a fearless approach to prevent future cases of sexual abuse is a community that stands proud before Hashem. Let us be that community.

  • Hendler and Sack are co-founders of Koleinu SA, a helpline and advocacy organisation supporting victims of abuse in the Jewish community. The helpline number is 011 264 0341.

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