The Penn State sex abuse scandal and now the Jewish Orthodox sex abuse scandal engulfing Yeshiva University require us to take a step back and analyze the problem of child sex abuse within large institutions. Why does a child sex abuse allegation get swept under the rug? How is it possible that a school official does nothing after learning that a teacher or school employee has reportedly sexually assaulted a child?
Whether it’s the Jewish community, the Catholic Church or any other religious community, child sex abuse by a priest, rabbi, pastor, etc., may go unpunished and ignored because of the combination of two well-known psychological phenomenons: groupthink and self-preservation.
Self-preservation is a very strong instinct, especially for those within a community like a church or school. Negative media attention, law enforcement investigation, and subsequent lawsuits are strong enough to prevent a moral person from doing the right thing and reporting child sex abuse by a priest, rabbi or teacher. This explains why a school principal may do nothing after learning that a teacher sexually abused a student.
Groupthink occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.
In a small community like the Jewish Orthodox community, it is easy to see how the psychology of groupthink applies. A community which has historically been persecuted and is ultra conservative would be particularly susceptible to groupthink. This phenomenon explains why a Jewish Orthodox young woman who was brave enough to face her sexual abuser is booed out of a synagogue. It also explains how a private and well-known Jewish school might sweep child sex abuse under the rug.
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