I frequently write about the importance of listening to the other side on tough issues, but are some positions so odious that they never deserve a hearing?
A couple of years ago, an Australian friend was directing a documentary about a difficult subject: child sex-abuse in his Jewish community. One of the interviewees was a former abuser who had gone on to live a normal family life for decades.
My friend had filmed a conversation between this man and a well-known sex-abuse survivor who had become a whistleblower. He needed someone to film the former abuser — now living in Los Angeles — reading a statement in his home. I’m a film director too, so my pal reached out to me. I figured that if a victims’ rights advocate was OK with interviewing this man, I was OK with filming him.
As I entered his house, I couldn’t help noticing that it was nicer than mine. Evidently, paying for his crime had not impeded his business. We were about the same age, and from the pictures on the fridge, his kids looked about the same age as mine.
His movements were a bit jittery, but he came across as intelligent and upbeat. It felt weird to be in a room with a man who had been convicted of child sex abuse. As a father, it occurred to me that it might be my obligation to clobber him with my tripod rather than film him.
As his story came out, there were some surprises. He had been relatively young when he committed the crime, about 10 years older than his teenage victim. Both had grown up in an ultra-Orthodox environment where people never expressed sexuality publicly and rarely discussed it privately. Masturbation was strictly prohibited. His ideas about sexuality were juvenile even after he became a legal adult.
The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community.
He made it sound as if the episode that changed his victim’s life and his own was a bit of experimentation that occurred because he was such an immature adult.
In any case, he did what he did, got caught and paid a price. He then moved to a new country, rebuilt his life, started a family, and never again engaged in criminal conduct, according to his telling of the story. He could have sealed his past in a never-to-be-reopened box, he said, except that he now felt a responsibility to help other boys and young men who engaged in similar “experimentation” and then felt so much remorse that suicide seemed like their only option.
Apparently, this happened pretty often.
He noted that God forgives the truly penitent, and so should we.
As I filmed, my mind was racing. Suppose a kid does a dumb thing that doesn’t even rise to the level of criminal conduct, but he feels so bad about it that he becomes suicidal. He can’t discuss it with anyone in his ultra-Orthodox world, but hearing this guy’s statement might help him realize he’s got options.
The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but his teshuvah — his atonement and turning — appeared genuine.
If the harm he had caused years earlier was a one-time mistake, then this shoot would serve a valuable purpose.
But what if the film’s director and I were being manipulated to cover for a predator? My gut told me the guy’s statement was genuine, but, as my wife often reminded me, I was not always the best judge of character.
Maybe this guy was and continued to be a pedophile, I thought. Maybe I should just run out of there and trash the footage.
Then I learned that people in his current community knew about his past and accepted him anyway. His wife was supportive. He seemed to be the poster boy for rehabilitation.
Isn’t that a value to be promoted? Sure, but do I want him around my kids? There are limits to positive ideology. A halfway house sounds like a great idea — until the parole board puts it next to your home.
In the end, I completed the shoot and sent the footage to Australia. I pray I participated in a worthy project, and that the man I filmed will live out his life on the right path. Perhaps someone else’s life will even be saved. Please God, let it be so.
Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.