The first impulse of most institutions when confronted by an accusation of child abuse by one of its staff is to squelch it. High-profile examples include the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, the widespread abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and the accusation that administrators of Yeshiva University High School in New York City covered up abuse for decades.
In the Pittsburgh Jewish community, there have been four cases in the last six years involving suspected child molestation. But according to Det. Bryan Sellers of the city’s Bureau of Police Sex Assault Team, he was not able to make a case against the suspected pedophiles because the institutions involved declined to cooperate with police.
That changed when Yeshiva Boys School of Pittsburgh chose not to be the fifth such institution. As a result, when Rabbi Nisson Friedman, 26, a since-dismissed teacher, was suspected of sexually assaulting at least three boys while employed by the school, Yeshiva’s response was “exemplary,” according to Sellers.
As reported this week by The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week the first thing Yeshiva did was get Friedman — who is well connected in the local community and is the son of an influential Minnesota-based rabbi — out of the school and call the police. No circling the wagons, no stonewalling and no apparent hesitancy. “They have been accommodating law enforcement, and they have been providing spots at the school to conduct interviews [relative to the case],” Sellers said.
When the school first heard about the suspected abuse, it also informed school families. Last month, it held a meeting to update the school community on the investigation. The school also called Deborah Fox, the founder of Magen Yeladim, a national organization that works to prevent child abuse through education. She recommended that school leadership call Child Protective Services and advised the school to get an attorney.
Fox was impressed by what she saw. She called Yeshiva “exemplary and a model for how a school should handle a very dramatic situation.” Part of the reason the school responded as it did was because administrators undergo annual training in their legal responsibilities.
“It is unfortunately sad, but it is what it is, and we have to protect our children,” said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, principal of Yeshiva Boys School. “The safety of our children is paramount.”
That’s the simple truth. Another truth that institutions and communities, including right here in Washington, must recognize is that this is, unfortunately, a problem that isn’t going to go away. So when it does happen, knowing how to respond will greatly contribute to the safety of our children.