LONDON — The leader of Britain’s Haredi community has been caught on video advising an alleged victim of sexual abuse not to report the claim to police.
Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, was recorded by a community member using a hidden camera as part of a Channel 4 documentary on Haredi child abuse.
In a scene that will air Wednesday, the insider, who hails from the Haredi London neighborhood of Stamford Hill, tells Padwa, “Someone who you may know of . . . sexually abused me when I was younger, when I was a child,” and asks how to proceed.
After Padwa responds, “We are dealing with this,” the insider asks whether he should go to the police.
“Oh no,” Padwa answers, explaining that doing so would constitute “mesirah,” or turning a Jew over to secular authorities. He adds in Yiddish, “People mustn’t tell tales.”
The Channel 4 program, a special edition of the “Dispatches” current affairs series, will highlight 19 alleged cases of child sexual abuse in Haredi communities across the UK, none of which have been reported to police because of feared reprisals from within the Haredi world.
When the insider in the Padwa segment – who originally made allegations in 2005 — asks whether the rabbi can be certain the alleged abuser isn’t harming others, Padwa retorts, “The police also cannot assure. The police is not the solution.”
A spokesman for Padwa questioned the credibility of Channel 4’s undercover insider
He appears to sidestep a question about how to deal with authorities if they learn about the alleged abuse independently, repeating twice, “Let’s hope it wouldn’t happen.”
He then reiterates, “You shouldn’t do anything that can lead to the police.”
Asked to comment by The Times of Israel, a spokesman for Padwa questioned the credibility of Channel 4’s undercover insider, saying the allegations had already been investigated and dismissed as “malicious” by social services in the borough of Hackney. They were investigated again in 2007.
Padwa’s on-camera advice about avoiding the police was made, the spokesman said, with that in mind.
The program’s producers have questioned Padwa’s account, pointing to a full transcript of the conversation that reveals the rabbi was referring to a different case of alleged child abuse at a synagogue.
Minutes of a March 2005 meeting run by social services, seen exclusively by The Times of Israel, show that an unnamed man made accusations to the Police Child Protection Team against a former teacher at a Haredi school. He claimed to be acting out of concern that his nephew, who attended the school, “could be subject to the same abuse.”
When the teacher learned of the complaint, it was alleged that he offered the former student money “to shut the young person up,” the document reports.
The teacher denied the account, claiming the financial discussion was in fact attempted extortion by the accuser. Social services accepted his version of events, declining to take further action.
A letter from the school confirms that the accuser is the same man who appears in the TV program.
A representative of Channel 4 blasted attacks on the insider’s credibility. “We are appalled by an attempt to discredit a young person because he has made an allegation of sexual abuse about a member of his community,” a spokesman said.
Wednesday’s documentary, “Britain’s Hidden Child Abuse,” comes at a particularly sensitive time for London’s Haredi community, which is embroiled in an ongoing scandal over a former religious judge for the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Chaim Halpern. He has been accused of sexual misconduct involving about 30 women who came to him for counseling.
As head of the Union, Padwa has been under pressure to act more decisively against Halpern, and many blame him for mishandling the affair, which has yet to be resolved after bursting into the public domain in October.
While cases of child sexual abuse in the community occasionally go to the authorities, Britain’s Haredim lag far behind their American counterparts in dealing with the issue. The series of high-profile prosecutions seen in New York in recent years has not been replicated in the UK.
Fear of reprisals from within the Haredi community “made it difficult for people to speak to us,” a Channel 4 spokesman said of the documentary. “But of those who did, many said the community wants to deal with any problems internally, even when it comes to something as serious as alleged child sex abuse.
“Within the community, people often turn to the rabbis for advice and help. Our investigation discovered that ‘advice’ sometimes amounts to an outright ban on reporting alleged child abuse to the authorities.”
‘We are appalled by an attempt to discredit a young person because he has made an allegation of sexual abuse’
The investigation began, the spokesman added, after Channel 4 heard about parents who felt powerless to act against an alleged pedophile hired at a Haredi school.
The show is expected to include testimony from an anonymous rabbi about the need for police involvement in child abuse cases.
Sources said the Union will issue a statement to rabbis and educators on Thursday evening or Friday, in Hebrew, that will announce the establishment of a committee to deal with allegations of abuse. It is expected to include experts trained in child protection.
While the statement will not call on families suspecting abuse to alert secular authorities, it will note that the committee recognizes circumstances in which it is appropriate to contact social services or the police. The committee will address allegations in partnership with the community’s beth din, or religious court, and in accordance with secular law.
Channel 4 producers contacted advocates and alleged victims for next week’s program with help from Ben Hirsch, a spokesperson for Survivors for Justice, a New York-based advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. He said the tone of the program would determine how it is received by British Haredim.
“We helped the producers understand how the problem was exposed in the US,” he said, “and how this might compare to what is now unfolding in the UK. While it’s impossible to know what the final product will look like, my experience working with the team over close to two years is that they are professional, very sincere, very well-informed on the issue and very careful with their facts.”