Movsesian at the Morningside Institute Tomorrow

For readers in the area, tomorrow night I’ll appear in midtown Manhattan on a panel sponsored by the Morningside Institute, “Church-State Relations in a Time of Scandal.” I’ll be discussing recent state attempts to require clergy to report suspected cases of child abuse, including cases clergy learn about through confidential spiritual counseling, and what these attempts suggest about our changing religious landscape. Details at the link. Stop by and say hello!

Around the Web

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Some important law-and-religion stories from around the web:

The UN, Children, and the Vatican

Here is the latest evidence of the clash between contemporary human rights norms and traditional religions. Last week, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child reported on the Vatican’s compliance with an international treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which virtually every UN member, including the Holy See, has ratified (though not the US), lists universal rights of children, including the right to be protected from discrimination; the right to be free from violence, including sexual abuse; the right to health and welfare; and so on.

The committee had blunt words for the Vatican. With respect to the sexual abuse crisis, it complained, “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.” The committee had several suggestions for how the Vatican could do better job, including the immediate removal of “all known and suspected child sexual abusers” and referral of cases “to the relevant law enforcement authorities.”

Critics complain that the that the committee did not sufficiently acknowledge the steps the Vatican has taken to address the crisis. I’ll leave that question to others. Whether or not the Vatican’s response has been adequate, everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a violation of children’s rights. But the committee also addressed subjects on which everyone does not agree. It suggested that the Vatican alter its positions on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality in order to meet its obligations under the Convention.

For example, the committee stated that the prohibition of abortion “places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls”and urged the Vatican to amend canon law to “identify circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” It expressed “serious concern” about the Vatican’s policy of “denying adolescents access to contraception.” The Vatican must put “adolescents’ best interests” ahead of other concerns, the committee said. And the committee expressed concern that the Holy See’s disapproval of homosexuality may lead to discrimination against LGBT children and the children of LGBT parents. It recommended that the Holy See amend canon law to recognize diverse family arrangements. 

As my former colleague Julian Ku explains, these recommendations don’t follow clearly from the text of the Convention, which lacks “specific language about LGBTQ rights, the appropriate circumstances for abortions, or birth-control education.” On the contrary, Ku says, the report is based upon an “aggressive” reading of the treaty. And the recommendations obviously conflict with fundamental teachings of one of the world’s great religions. Given these facts, shouldn’t the committee have dialed it back a bit? Why push an aggressive, contestable interpretation of a treaty that purports to be universal, notwithstanding the inevitable conflict with the Catholic Church and other traditional religions?

There are probably two explanations. First, to the committee, these recommendations seem morally incontrovertible. Who could doubt that children’s best interests call for liberalized abortion, unrestricted access to contraceptives, and the recognition of same-sex marriages? From the secular human rights perspective, these propositions are frustratingly obvious. The idea that one might in good faith define “best interests” differently–that many world religions in fact do define “best interests” differently–doesn’t make sense. The committee simply cannot credit the other point of view.

Second, the secular human rights regime believes it is at the brink of final victory in these matters. (It has believed so for about 50 years now.) The forces of obscurity are in retreat and religion no longer dictates people’s lives, at least in the civilized West. The Catholic Church, in particular, is on the ropes, a victim of its own sins and intransigence. Why not put an end to its obstructionism once and for all? This would help the cause of progress, and actually be a good thing for the Church, too.

The committee no doubt expected the negative reaction of the Vatican to last week’s report. But it may have been surprised that so many in the elite media objected too. The Economist criticized the report for being sloppy and taking positions on issues where consensus is lacking. The Atlantic‘s  Emma Green complained that the report inappropriately critiqued deeply-held religious beliefs. And the Boston Globe‘s John Allen argued that the report would only confirm the opinion of skeptics that the UN is motivated by politics and secular ideology. Perhaps the final victory is still a ways off.

Resnicoff on Jewish Law and the Tragedy of Sexual Abuse of Children

Steven H. Resnicoff  (DePaul U. School of Law) has posted Jewish Law and the Tragedy of Sexual Abuse of Children: The Dilemma within the Orthodox Jewish Community. The abstract follows.

Jewish law requires a person to exert one’s energies and expend one’s financial resources to prevent the commission of interpersonal crimes and to protect or rescue victims of such crime. By contrast, American law generally permits a person to watch another bleed to death without offering any assistance at all. Most Jewish law courses place great emphasis on this difference, and commentators frequently cite it as proof of Jewish law’s moral superiority.

However, with respect to the tragedy of child sexual abuse, the systems seem to have switched roles. American law imposes a variety of affirmative duties on individuals and organizations to protect prospective victims. These obligations include conducting fingerprint-based criminal background checks on employees and reporting reasonably suspected or reasonably believed child abuse to public authorities.

By contrast, with respect to child sexual abuse, many, although certainly not all, important Orthodox authorities have rejected the ameliorative steps prescribed by secular law. Even more troublingly, they have permitted, and in at least some cases possibly encouraged, reprisals against those who have reported abuse, including victims and their families.

I argue that the problem does not lie in Jewish law. After thoroughly examining the relevant Jewish law doctrines, I conclude that Jewish law not only permits but actually demands that vigorous measures be taken to eradicate child sexual abuse. However, I also acknowledge that the sociological realities of the Orthodox Jewish community seem to have produced a variety of pressures that help perpetuate the status quo. Such factors include conscious or subconscious concerns for the financial viability of important communal institutions and for the community members’ continued fealty to traditional rabbinic authorities. However, I argue that even these concerns could be more successfully addressed if rabbinic authorities would spearhead steps to stamp out child sexual abuse.

Reporting Child Sex Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community

The Jewish Daily Forward reports on a controversy in Brooklyn over D.A. Charles Hynes’s refusal to name scores of Orthodox Jews arrested for child sex crimes over the last three years. Hynes has charged 85 members of the Orthodox Jewish community with such crimes, but says that releasing their names might identify the victims, which NY law forbids.  Critics say this is a pretext and that Hynes, an elected official, is in fact trying to maintain the support of the influential Orthodox Jewish community, which opposes releasing the names. The Forward article also discusses a controversial policy adopted by Agudath Israel, an umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis, that requires Jews who suspect child sex abuse to consult their rabbis before reporting their suspicions to secular authorities. Critics argue that Orthodox rabbis often persuade people that approaching the civil authorities would violate Jewish law principles such as the prohibition on lashon harah, or “evil gossip.”

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