At Sheppard Pratt Hospital and in her private practice, Dr. Joyanne Silberg counsels sexual abuse victims and has been called in as an expert witness at trials. So when asked to contribute a chapter for a book on child sex abuse in the Jewish community, Dr. Silberg immediately thought of her hometown.
“Baltimore is a leader in beginning that conversation,” said Dr. Silberg, a clinical psychologist whose titles include coordinator of the childhood trauma disorders program at Sheppard Pratt and vice president of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.
“And the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES has played a leading role in starting that conversation,” she said, alluding to a series of articles in recent years by Executive Editor Phil Jacobs on perpetrators here.
Dr. Silberg’s chapter, titled “Out Of The Closet,” appears in “Tempest In The Temple: Jewish Communities And Child Sex Scandals.” The 272-page book was published last spring by the University Press of New England and Brandeis University Press as part of a Brandeis series on American Jewish life.
Various authors contributed chapters to the book. They range from the rabbi of a Massachusetts congregation on accusations against the longtime cantor there to strategies on prosecuting perpetrators by Amy Neustein, editor of “Tempest.”
In her chapter, Dr. Silberg delves into the series that appeared in the JEWISH TIMES, interviewing Mr. Jacobs, as well as chronicling situations in her practice. Her primary focus is the communal backlash that often occurs in response to accusations.
“Acknowledging that normal-appearing individuals of high status would abuse a child shatters our image of our community as a source of civility and safety,” wrote Dr. Silberg, 56, who lives in Pikesville and worships at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
In 2002, five Catholic priests in the Boston area were charged with sexual abuse, igniting a firestorm in that community. A parallel scandal was brewing in the Jewish community, which came to light in 2006 with exposés in a New York magazine and a national TV show.
In 2007, an American Journal of Psychiatry study of Orthodox Jewish women found that one in four reported sexual abuse occurring by the age of 13, which mirrors data from the non-Jewish population. When the information was printed in the Jewish media, the response from one national Orthodox leader was to attack the study.
“The study was shocking, but I wanted to address the backlash,” said Dr. Silberg. “The backlash against Mr. Jacobs is so typical of people who speak out. It’s not just Baltimore, it’s a national problem.”
For a variety of reasons, Dr. Silberg contends, the Jewish community is particularly susceptible to forces that would silence and intimidate victims. She said the topic makes community members uncomfortable and plays into their feelings of denial and fear.
Sexuality has traditionally been a taboo subject in the Jewish community, especially among the Orthodox, according to Dr. Silberg. As a result, she said, “Children do not have a language to even address it, to say no, to tell about it. That is changing, but it’s still new.”
Dr. Silberg makes clear that she is not talking about the Orthodox only. The concepts of lashon harah, not engaging in gossip, and of not airing the community’s dirty linen in public are commonplace in the Jewish community, she said, often enabling rabbinic authorities and communal leaders not to deal with unpleasant situations.
“People who are looking for denial can find any excuse. It makes me angry because I see the victims. I am not dispassionate,” said Dr. Silberg. “Denial goes way up. It’s in the judicial system — the judges and courts. It’s even in the academic realm, where professors will spend years [devising theories that] children are lying — for money, for prestige, for their reputations.”
Dr. Silberg said she believes in educating children about sexual abuse so they can recognize and respond to the situation. She said it is important for schools to have clear, specific policies spelling out what is and is not acceptable. She also believes in parental and community education.
“We need to create a culture where talking about it is expected. [Child sex abuse] thrives in communities where silence is the rule,” said Dr. Silberg. “The Jewish community needs to come together and deal with this.”