Sexual Abuse in Institutions of Education

“Of all the sins of omission committed by Penn State University in its alleged mishandling of sexual assaults, perhaps the most unforgivable was the failure to find the young boy who was seen being victimized in 2002. It seemed not to occur to anyone to try to identify this child or to consider that he might need treatment and protection. Apparently, shielding the university and its treasured football program came first, and so the boy’s alleged attacker was told simply to keep his activities off-campus. The abdication of legal and moral obligations at an institution that is supposed to develop young people is inexcusable.”

Editorial, The Washington Post, November 9, 2011.

“Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel says, is ‘an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.”’

New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd, November 9, 2011.

One reads these powerful sentences and can only wonder.

Perhaps there will come a time, one day, when those who knew what befell a group of students at a modern-Orthodox high school for boys in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan  in the 1970′s and 1980′s, will have the courage to come forward.

And there are those who knew.

That the school’s associate principal responsible for Judaic Studies – - an ordained rabbi and congregational leader  – was summoning students into his office and inviting them to his Washington Heights apartment under the guise of Torah study, only to wrestle them to the ground against their will and pin his stimulated body over theirs, was apparently no secret in those days.

Whether this predatory behavior was reported at the time by faculty or staff – a number of them today hold prominent Jewish communal leadership posts — is not certain.

One thing, however, is for sure:  they couldn’t stop it from happening to me.

That both perpetrator and victim were fully-clothed, that there was no sexual penetration, does not make this violation, this searing betrayal, any less blasphemous.

Surely the YU Beacon, for all its courage in publishing this essay, is not the forum to delineate the particulars of this brazen act, in all its vulgarity.  However, it might be the appropriate venue for an alumnus to pose a series of questions for the benefit of a new generation students. Perhaps they can be spared from similar acts in the future.

In the wake of the Penn State University sexual abuse scandal, what mechanisms are in place for a high school or college student to report  physical or verbal assaults of a sexual nature by a staff member, especially at the most senior academic, administrative or leadership level?

Are students securely confident that their institution – with a world to lose if word of an alleged assault were to leak out to parents, donors and the press – can be counted upon to thoroughly and honestly investigate the accusations , to the point of enacting a suspension, protecting the accuser, or even notifying law enforcement?

What is their institution’s policy for identifying other or past victims and reaching out to them with a program of treatment, days, months, or years later?

What sort of diagnostic does their institution employ to ensure that abusive behavior is not sprouting in its ranks?

Are there protocols and procedures governing one-on-one faculty meetings with students, both in institutional facilities after hours, in private homes, as well as during class trips and excursions?

And finally, following the departure or termination of an abusive employee, does the institution have a moral or legal obligation to notify future employers of that individual’s pattern of abusive behavior?

Perhaps, one day, when the wall of silence will be broken – and it is beginning to crack — there can be a full accounting.  Perhaps that Washington Heights institution will explain what it knew and when, and if it didn’t know, why, to scores of victims it counts as alumni.

It might even venture to guess how the man in question later secured a similar position in another state, possibly putting other young men at risk. Perhaps this man’s present employer – incredibly, one of Israel’s most prestigious congregations — might delineate its vetting process and allay any concerns that young men coming into contact with its executive director are not in harm’s way.

Several days ago, a most startling “LinkedIn” invitation appeared in my inbox. “Since you are a person I trust,” read the boiler-plate invitation, “I wanted to invite you to join my network on LinkedIn.”  The invitation had been sent by none other than my high school associate principal – the man who came to my elementary school 36 years ago and asked me to place my trust in him and in the legendary Torah educational institution he represented. “Accept,” or “Ignore,” were my choices to this “personal” invitation, which was devoid of a single word of remorse, conscience or personal expression.

For now, some of us are left to wonder whether an institution of higher learning –one that invoked a higher standard — abdicated its responsibility or simply fell asleep at the wheel. Giving a full accounting and reaching out to its victims is an invitation it can finally accept or continue to ignore.

Mordechai I. Twersky, a graduate of Yeshiva University High School (1981) and Yeshiva College (1985), is a freelance writer living in Israel.

Responses to this piece are welcome as letters to the editor at editor@yubeacon.com, and may be published in the next issue.