LONDON – London’s Haredi leadership has hit back at a television program claiming that the community covers up child sex abuse, saying the show “has done nothing to assist, and may have damaged, the chances of bringing abusers to justice.”
The program, “Britain’s Hidden Child Abuse,” aired on Channel 4 on Wednesday and alleged that rabbis in the Orthodox community forbid or discourage alleged victims of pedophilia from going to the secular authorities. It showed secretly filmed footage of two Haredi rabbis approached for advice by a former member of the community, who alleged that he had been sexually abused as a child.
One, Ephraim Padwa, the head of the Union of Hebrew Congregations, explicitly forbade him from going to the police. The other, religious judge Osher Westheim of the Manchester Beth Din, or religious court, said he was personally investigating allegations that a teacher at a local Jewish school was a pedophile, and claimed to have succeeded in getting some perpetrators to pay compensation to their victims – including, once, Â£5,000 ($7,900). He said that going to the authorities was permissible.
A spokesman for the Union of Hebrew Congregations, an umbrella organization for Orthodox institutions in London, told The Times of Israel that the program’s credibility was undermined by its reliance on anonymous sources. These included a rabbi whose face was not shown, who claimed that a young family had been driven out of its community after reporting abuse to authorities, and two young men who claimed to have taken the law into their own hands by attacking alleged perpetrators after their complaints of abuse were ignored by the rabbis.
“Channel 4 chose to use an anonymous ‘rabbi,’ an unidentified group of thuggish vigilantes, a young man whose claims cannot be verified and two specific cases that Channel 4 knew full well to have been investigated thoroughly by the local authorities and dropped without action to imply that our community does not take its responsibilities seriously,” the spokesman said.
“Our community does not need Channel 4 to remind us of our duty and responsibility to protect our children. They are our future, and we do all we can to protect them from these unspeakable crimes.
“For a number of years, we have worked with the local authorities and, where appropriate, the police, and we have robust procedures in place within all our schools. Let us now hope that Channel 4â€²s attempt to defame us does not discourage victims from coming forward to seek the help and guidance of our Child Protection Services.”
Channel 4 did not respond to questions posed by The Times of Israel. However, its press office said the program was watched by nearly 750,000 viewers, an audience it described as “very positive for an investigation of such a sensitive nature airing at 10:30 p.m.”
About 40,000 of the UK’s approximately 280,000 Jews are Haredi. Unlike in New York, the issue of child sex abuse in the Orthodox world received little airing in London before Wednesday night, and it was unclear how the program would affect the community’s treatment of the problem. In the days before the show aired, the Union released a statement to affiliated rabbis and educators announcing the formation of a child protection committee composed of people with relevant training.
According to the document, written in Hebrew, the rabbis “recognize that there are certain times when it is correct and necessary to call the police,” and the committee “will consult with the rabbis to determine the proper course of action in each case.”
The initial response to the Channel 4 program has been difficult to gauge, but it seems to have been welcomed by both Jewish and non-Jewish commenters online, who reacted with horror to the allegation that sex crimes were covered up.
One expert on British Haredim, Yaakov Wise of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester, criticized the program for a lack of nuance, saying it did not sufficiently explore reasons the community is reluctant to report cases to the police, or the evolution of its attitudes about abuse and secular law enforcement.
“It did not get to the root of the real issue – the increasing alienation of the Haredi community in Britain,” he said.
When Wise worked for the borough council in London’s Stamford Hill district in the 1980s, he said, he was involved in several cases of child abuse. The rabbi who then headed the Union, Yosef Tzvi Dunner, instructed him to go immediately to the police.
Since then, he said, the community has grown more reluctant to involve the authorities.
“There has been a change in personalities and in the community,” he said. “Stamford Hill has become less attached to modernity, and more enclosed and alienated [from contemporary Britain].”
“The problem is that people seem to view the modern British police force in the same way they looked at the Tzarist police in the 19th century. They don’t trust them to be sensitive enough.”
He added, however, that while Padwa is “very influential,” there were diverse attitudes toward reporting sexual crimes in the Orthodox world, and the program presented an unfairly monolithic view.
Asked what the long-term impact of the program might be, he predicted there would be none.
“Most Haredim don’t have televisions and didn’t see it,” he said. “It will be a nine-day wonder.”