A classic comedy routine involves a ‘good guy’ being chased by a villain. The good guy finally finds a safe haven, enters, slams the door behind him, and mops his brow with a sign of relief. However, he soon discovers that somehow the villain snuck in behind him. Now, he is alone in a locked space with the ‘bad guy’ – and nowhere to escape.
Whenever I hear people discussing the need to build higher and higher walls around our homes and communities to protect our children from the very real spiritual danger of ‘Walmart’ that I discussed in a recent column, I find myself increasingly playing in my mind a tragic version of this scene. Why? Because it is my strong and growing feeling that the number one risk factor for our beloved children abandoning Yiddishkeit is child molestation/abuse.
This is not to say that a majority of kids who are ‘off the derech’ were abused. But of all the complex and varied educational, social and familial factors that endanger to our children, the most damaging by far, in my opinion, is abuse. The very real threat posed by the external influences from which we all strive (in various degrees) to protect our children – such as media, Internet, and ‘bad friends’ – are all firecrackers compared to the atom bomb of sexual abuse.
Abuse robs children of their safety and innocence. Its ravages follow them through their teens and into adulthood, often shredding their marriages and complicating their relationships. Children who were molested harbor a simmering rage at the adult world that could not provide them with what should be the most basic birthright of every child; a sense of security. This anger displays itself in many forms – cultural, familial and spiritual. What is most dangerous, however, is when the rage turns inward and the children begin to self destruct by using drugs, abusing alcohol, engaging in self-mutilation … even committing suicide.
A close friend of mine runs a shelter/group home for charedi runaway kids. I recently ran into him at a wedding and asked him what his thoughts were on the correlation between abuse and the off-the-derech phenomenon. His immediate response was, “Yankie, all I deal with is abuse [victims],” meaning that virtually all the teens in his program were molested.
Most frightening from a communal perspective is that it is difficult if not impossible to cure a serial molester, even one who goes, or is forced to go, for help. Furthermore, untreated abuse victims are far more likely to abuse others then are people in the general population. So what we have is analogous to the Midrashic frog in Egypt (Shmos 8:2; Rashi) that multiplied each time it was struck. Similarly, a molester typically harms dozens or even hundreds of kids – each in turn a prime candidate to molest others; on and on.
How bad is it? Very, very bad. To paraphrase Rudy Giuliani’s famous quote in his 9/11 press conference, the number of abuse victims in our community is more than any of us can bear. I do not keep records of people who call me, or speak to me in public settings, but I would estimate that in the past year months alone between fifty and one hundred abuse victims and/or their parents contacted me. It has gotten so bad that when parents who do not suspect any form of abuse call me to discuss their at-risk children, the very first thing I listen for are the classic red-flags for abuse/molestation. (If I do suspect abuse, I immediately refer them to mental health professionals, as I do not feel qualified to deal with these matters.)
Why am I writing about this subject in the context of the ‘Walmart’ discussion? Because as we talk about building walls around our children to protect them from the decadence of secular culture, we had better make certain that the ‘monster’ of child abuse is on the other side of the wall.
Abusers are nocturnal creatures, operating most effectively in the darkness of denial. What they fear most is the light of day and the righteous indignation of victims. Most predators have a sixth sense of which children are from homes with parents who are inattentive or not ‘complainers.’ They zoom in on them like a moth to light knowing that the odds are slim that their despicable acts will be reported.
So ‘walled’ communities are the dream setting for a child molester. A community where negative news is not reported and the fear of causing a chilul Hashem makes people hush things up is a community where an abuser can comfortably set up shop.
Much as I would love to pass on the sensitive matter of child abuse and molestation, I feel the burden of responsibility to squarely address it due to the life-threatening danger that it represents to our children. I write these lines because I am haunted by the images of the many abuse victims I have encountered over the years. I visited shelters and substance-abuse facilities where they attempted to recover from drug overdoses. I tried my best to comfort their parents who were going through their own personal gehenom, while their children confronted theirs. I paid shiva calls to bereaved parents and siblings of abused children who later committed suicide and to those whose children’s suicides were presented to the public as death by other cause.
In short, I keep seeing the horrific carnage that the monster of abuse is causing among our children. We have the capacity to banish it to the other side of the door. All we need is courage and conviction.
L’maan Hashem, let’s finally do it.
© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
Next Column: Some practical abuse-prevention tips for parents
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