In the past few years, an increasing number of allegations about rabbinic sexual impropriety have come to light, beginning with charges against Rabbi Baruch Lanner and more recently against Rabbi Mordechai Gafni of Bayit Chadash in Israel and Rabbi Yehuda Kolko of a boys’ yeshiva in New York City.
The most recent allegations have tended to crop up first on the Internet–either on blogs such as Un-Orthodox Jew or Jewish Whistleblower, or web sites like The Awareness Center. This makes sense since it’s much easier to get your message out on the Internet than through more traditional media. But it also raises the specter of unfounded allegations being put out as fact, without any of the usual checks by impartial third parties that would happen before, say, an article would be published in a newspaper.
The ease of disseminating allegations online raises serious questions about lashon ha-ra– harmful or slanderous speech. Once an allegation–however unfounded–is out in the world, the reputation of the rabbi in question is almost irretrievably ruined.
Even if the allegation is later proven to be false, very few congregations or organizations want to hire a person whose name has been publicly linked with sexual abuse. Moreover, a spate of unfounded accusations makes it that much harder for people with legitimate complaints to be taken seriously. Indeed, serious charges have been leveled against the Awareness Center and its director, Vicki Polin, for its failure to institute reliable checks or to remove discredited information.
These are very serious concerns, but so too, of course, are unchecked acts of abuse by rabbis, particularly those involving minors.
I tend to agree with Rabbi Michael Dratch of JSafe, who recently wrote that too often legitimate concerns and allegations have gone unheeded, with organizational leaders closing ranks to support abusers and marginalize the victims. It is exactly this lack of responsiveness to legitimate allegations through official channels that drives people to post their allegations on the Internet, because they have nowhere else to go.
In too many cases, the Jewish community has proven willing to ignore or to silence accusers in order to protect its own image, as we have seen time and again with the Catholic Church. This lack of accountability is unconscionable: not only does it re-victimize those who have been abused; it also allows sexual predators to abuse again.
Given the seriousness of the crimes and the lack of other outlets for airing allegations, I believe Internet postings, even with the dangers they entail, are the clear lesser of two evils. Readers should take what they find online with a grain of salt and allow those accused the opportunity to defend themselves. And we all should work toward making our communities more open and transparent, to restore confidence that serious charges can be aired and will be addressed sensitively and appropriately.