Several years ago, when visiting a Jewish community in a different city, I was approached by a young woman in her 30s. I had given a talk earlier in the day on the topic of the abuse of children, and she wanted to talk with me regarding my presentation. Before she could begin explaining, she started to cry, which quickly turned into a deep sobbing that shook her whole body. It was very painful to witness. Eventually, she began to speak softly about her preteen years and the abuse she experienced.
Suffice it to say that her story was horrific. The man who abused her, single, in his 40s, was a frequent guest at her family’s Shabbos table, and a trusted friend of her father’s. She was just 10 years old when it started and it continued for three years, leaving devastation in its wake.
I use the word devastation intentionally because no other word quite captures the breadth and depth of her visible pain. Feelings of shame, self-doubt, guilt, confusion, grief, and intense sadness are some of the emotions she was struggling with. She was quiet for a while and the thought occurred to me that this terrifying period in her life had ended close to 20 years before, and yet the look on her face and the tone of her voice spoke volumes of the horror of that experience.
I waited patiently to see if she would ask me a question, and began to realize that there was more she wanted to say, more she needed to say, and was struggling to be able to express it. I said something like, “It looks like you have something else to add, it’s okay, take your time,” which led to more sobbing that seemed somehow more intense, more filled with sadness and loss than the first set of tears.
Between sobs and trying to catch her breath she continued her story: “Those three years were traumatic and they still fill me with terror and disgust, but what came later was, in many ways, worse.” More silence for a few minutes. It looked like she was trying to build up the courage to say what she needed to say. She finally blurted out, almost shouting the words, “I told them and they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me. My parents, they made light of it and told me to stop being so dramatic, he was probably just being friendly.” And forcing out another sentence: “He abused me for years, he was a monster … but my parents betrayed me. I wanted to die, in fact I did kind of die that day, shutting down, feeling alone in the world, afraid to open up to anyone. If my own parents didn’t believe me, who would?”
When a child is exploited by an adult, he is betrayed. If the abuser is a family member, or rabbi, or camp counselor, or teacher, it’s a bigger betrayal. The closer the person, the more trusted he is, thus making the victim more vulnerable, the deeper the betrayal.
If your child comes to you, and discloses his confusion about someone touching him, your first job is to listen, not judge. And unless you’re 100 percent sure that he’s lying (and it is pretty much impossible to be 100 percent sure), you must believe him. Your job is not to panic, and to fight your own dread, your own fear. Your role is to provide safety while remaining calm, communicating the message that you believe him and that he did nothing wrong, that you love him and will do everything in your power to get him the help he needs to begin the process of healing.
This means no questions like, “Why would he start up with you?” or, “What did you do to attract his attention?” which imply blame. And if you don’t take it seriously, you compound the injury, and the trauma. If a teen comes to a rabbi and he doesn’t believe her, saying something like, “I know that man, he is a good person, you must stop exaggerating” or worse, such as teaching her the laws of lashon hara, it does immeasurable damage, and can destroy her faith in rabbis. Communities, too, must believe the child and support her and her family during this traumatic period, when she is especially vulnerable and fragile. Any complaint from a child should be thoroughly checked. How can we turn our backs on our most vulnerable members?
All of us know that it is our responsibility to protect our children. We need to protect the betrayed, not betray them. —