We are sisters. One of us is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor. One of us is a licensed social worker who has worked clinically with victims of sexual abuse and is also a victim of sexual assault. One of us is a member of the Orthodox community. One of us was a member of the Orthodox community. We are writing about the case of Evan Zauder.
For those who do not know, Evan Zauder was a teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus. He worked for more than a decade with children through youth groups, including at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, and in summer camps. In January 2013, Zauder pled guilty to transportation, receipt and distribution of child pornography, possession of child pornography and enticement of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity. He admitted committing sex crimes against children.
Much has been debated regarding the multitude of letters sent on behalf of Zauder to the federal judge determining his sentence. (He was sentenced to 13 years in prison last month.) More than 50 letters were sent by rabbis, teachers, friends, and family members asking the judge for leniency. The letters came from those who are pillars of the Orthodox community, individuals who have been drawn to “helping professions.” As we looked at this list we saw many names we know, some peripherally, some personally. These are intelligent, kind, and valued members of their communities. They are not evil. Yet the words they used were not intelligent, kind, or of value. In their own words many referred to Zauder’s “mistake” when they were talking about the crimes he committed, the “struggle” he was going through, that he is a “good and decent person who lost control.” They laud the time he spent alone with students and campers, stating he was always “honorable, respectful and caring” in the time he spent with these children.
These letters, available in the public domain and on the Internet, have provoked much comment with regard to the many “big names” who wrote them on Zauder’s behalf. They asked the judge to consider all that made him an integral part of their community. They asked the judge to see him as other than his admitted crimes of pornography and molestation. They ignored the fact that he violated his own parole by accessing child pornography on a monitored computer. They argue that Zauder’s worth to the community as an educator and leader should mitigate his punishment. In making their case, they forget that the victims are more than just victims.
They are children.
It is unacceptable to call pedophilia, child molestation, or child pornography heinous “activities.” These are not “activities,” these are crimes. It is unconscionable to call what Zauder did a “poor decision,” that now he understands the “error of his ways,” and that he made a “grievous mistake.” It is horrific to think that someone actually could tell the judge that he has watched Zauder interact with children and that he was always “honorable, respectful, caring and gentlemanly” and the “consummate professional.” It is unforgivable to hear someone praise Zauder for struggling with his “problem.” These words minimize the acts.
As we read these letters we saw little consideration for the victims. If we could we would question those who praised Zauder’s restraint for the numerous times he was alone with children and did not succumb. Should he be applauded for showing restraint? How does the writer know these children were safe? How could a child ever feel comfortable coming forward when they see the name of their role model and protector on the list of people requesting leniency for Zauder? The pertinent question is not how best to come to the aid of the predator in our midst. Instead, the question is how as a community can we reach out, protect defenseless children from them, and create a space where these children feel supported and not re-victimized by their community.
One of us was assaulted on a yeshiva class trip. While the teacher informed responded appropriately, the other educators blamed me for the assault. After I left the program early and returned home, a prominent educator in the school called me a quitter and told my parents that I was a failure. That moment was the start of a journey away from a toxic environment, and away from Orthodoxy.
We cannot help but wonder how many others have suffered in similar manner. Perhaps if Zauder’s supporters were more aware of the harmful effects of their words we could stop this process of invalidating the victims.
One of us remains in the Orthodox community but lives with trepidation. In the year 2014, where is the understanding that when community members neutralize a perpetrator’s crimes by praising his “leadership qualities” they negate the seriousness of his crimes? They create a communal false sense of security and allow misperceptions about child abuse to permeate our collective understanding. Furthermore, it is sad to realize how many good people went to bat for a convicted child molester. How can we trust our educators, schools, camps, and leaders to keep our children safe after this?
These letters give voice to this ongoing problem. The question must be asked: Who is of greater value to the community – our children or those who prey upon them?
These letters raise the likelihood that the next victim may not speak out. We have a moral obligation to give our children a safe place to share. We do not have a coequal obligation to speak on behalf of our criminals.