This past week a teacher from a local grade school pleaded not guilty in a West Roxbury District Court to charges of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 and posing a child in a state of nudity. He also pleaded not guilty to related charges of possession of child pornography in Brighton District Court. Anyone who reads the news is used to reading/hearing such stories. The recent Penn State Jerry Sandusky scandal splashed around all kinds of salacious, shocking stories for days.
We may be used to shocking news stories involving inappropriate physical contact between adults and children, but we are hardly inured to them. The sexual exploitation of children is so heinous that mention of it causes us to recoil in pure revulsion. The betrayal of trust, the psychological and physical injury, the cynical use of power and fear to intimidate the child victim – all these reasons and so many more make us feel sick and angry.
This story has some added dimensions for me. Since I first heard mention of it on the radio, I’ve been reeling. Because the teacher in question taught one of my daughters at Underwood School for second grade. Because the teacher in question is a bright, friendly young man. Because the teacher in question was always the quintessential nice Jewish boy. Because we had the teacher in question at our home for various Jewish holidays.
I feel utterly torn apart by this turn of events. As a father, a rabbi – a human being for God’s sake! – I am unequivocally enraged by Mr. E’s conduct, and if he is guilty, I want him to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. [By the way, I’m calling him Mr. E, the name by which he’s been known for years; I won’t use his full name because, quite frankly, it hurts me too much.]
But in addition to my rage and disgust, I have a deep sadness. I always felt so happy to see Mr. E around town. My daughter and her classmates had so much affection for him, and their feelings led me and almost all of the parents of his students to also feel positively disposed towards him. He seemed to be such a good guy…
And there’s the utter paradox. Mr. E was a good guy. And at the same time, he engaged in behavior that was both immoral and illegal. What does this mean? Well, for one thing it means that we can never really know another person. The human mind is capable of twisting itself into the darkest of places. The private obsessions, the dreams and nightmares we live with can destroy us. The enormous pull of addiction, the emptiness we can feel and what we may use to try to fill it… all of this can plague us endlessly.
My heart aches for Mr. E’s parents. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to see your grown child brought down so low. They believe he’s innocent – I hope he is. But reading the charges leads me to suspect that Mr. E is guilty. And if so, that means Mr. E’s parents have to acknowledge how little they know their own flesh and blood. And of course my heart aches for the victims, the scared, scarred children used and abused by Mr. E and others.
And so on this Shabbat I pray for justice and for mercy. I pray for openheartedness and forgiveness. I pray for strength as I continue to walk through this wild maze called Life.