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We Are Not Exempt

November 15, 2011
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There's a Jewish angle to almost every story and, sadly, the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University is no exception. It turns out that Penn State's now former president is Jewish and its legendary football coach was honored by the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee with its National Leadership Award earlier this year.

But beyond those revelations, the Jewish story goes deeper. We all know the strong connection that Penn State alumni -- including many in our own community -- have to their alma mater and its legendary football program.

Everyone has an opinion on whether the firing of Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno was the right thing to do or whether there was an unfair rush to judgment in the wake of allegations that Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach of the Nittany Lions, sexually abused young boys. But we believe that the sacking of Paterno and Spanier sends a powerful message that, faced with suspicions -- and concrete accusations -- of such heinous crimes, institutional leaders must do all in their power to ensure that the crimes stop.

There are still many questions lurking in this case but one thing is certain: This scandal should serve as a wake-up call for all institutions -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- to take a good, hard look at the policies and procedures for handling and reporting such disturbing situations. One would have thought that the sex-abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church in recent years would have sounded the necessary alarms, but obviously some people still aren't paying attention.

Sadly, we in the Jewish community have not been exempt from horrific cases of child sex-abuse cases. There have been numerous instances over the years, particularly in the Orthodox community, where pedophiles have molested children -- and worse -- and the institutions that should hold moral sway have turned a blind eye. In recent years, some of these institutions have begun to address these issues, publicly debunking the myth that Jewish pedophiles don't exist. The RCA, the Orthodox rabbinical organization, at its last convention passed a resolution noting an increasing "awareness of incidents of the sexual and physical abuse of children in our community," and reaffirming the principle that such crimes must be reported to civil authorities.

Just as happened at Penn State among top officials, there is often a tendency to protect the institution rather than the victims, to circle the wagons and pretend that the problem doesn't exist.

The take-away from all the trauma surrounding the debacle in State College is that there must be clear reporting guidelines and procedures in place, especially in child-centered institutions such as schools and religious institutions. While there may be many claims of victimhood, the real victims here are the children, who will carry scars long after Penn State returns to a quieter, normal state.

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