Vindication is nice, but there’s sometimes bitter mixed in with the sweet.
Back in October of last year, a headline in the New York Jewish Week read: “No Religious Haven From Abuse.” The subheader amplified: “New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women.” As I wrote shortly thereafter, first in a letter to the Jewish Week and then in a longer essay, the study found nothing of the sort.
Because of the sample it recruited, the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim at all about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities.
The study’s authors themselves in fact stated as much, noting that “those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population,” and that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a “major limitation of this study.” What is more, over half the women comprising the recruited study sample were receiving mental health treatment at the time. Victims of abuse, needless to say, are more likely than others to seek counseling, and so the sample would be expected to yield a larger number of victims than one representative of the larger Orthodox community.
And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected and non-representative) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that “Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women,” the Jewish Week writer revealed only her own innumeracy. If anything, the similar percentages between an Orthodox group disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse and a non-Jewish random sample arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the former.
After daring to call attention to all that, I was roundly and strongly censured. One subsequent writer to the Jewish Week, utterly uncomprehending of the point about the number of study subjects receiving mental health treatment, claimed it indicated the precise opposite of what it did, and accused me of denying that abuse exists in the Orthodox community, although I explicitly noted in both my letter and essay that abuse exists in every community, including the Orthodox.
Another letter-writer, this one a Long Island psychologist, condescendingly sniffed that without “a knowledge of… non-parametric statistics” I simply was not qualified to address the study’s findings. He too, incredibly, managed to misconstrue the entire point about the sample’s disproportionate share of mental health patients. Then blogs, of course, weighed in, demonstrating with their rantings just how widespread is the misconstrual of the word “critical” in the phrase “critical thinking” as “negative” rather than “analytical.”
Finally, though, several weeks later, some sanity came to reign. In a long and comprehensive article, the Director of Psychotherapy Training in the Psychiatry Residency Training Program at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Nachum Klafter, asked by a blog to evaluate the study and the Jewish Week article, presented his conclusion that I had “correctly read the AJP paper” and that the Jewish Week writer had clearly misreported its findings.
That was followed by a joint monograph by a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Education and Philosophy, a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology and a well-known and regarded author of essays and books on cultural issues. It stated that “to attempt to generalize from [the study highlighted in the Jewish Week article] to the Orthodox mainstream – or to draw grand comparisons between subgroups within this skewed sample – seems to be a gross misrepresentation of the data obtained.”
Both of the recent papers, moreover, noted that the study’s data in fact yields the remarkable (yet somehow unremarked upon by the Jewish Week) fact that the survey respondents who were raised Orthodox were 50% less likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those from non-Orthodox homes. Considering that the survey asked if abuse occurred at any point in respondents’ lives, it is plausible if not likely that much of the abuse reported among those raised non-Orthodox occurred before they joined observant communities.
None of which, of course, is to deny either that abuse exists in the Orthodox community (as it does in all communities) or that all communities, including the Orthodox, have a responsibility to put effective measures into place to prevent it. But the fact of its existence in the Orthodox world is no justification for drawing unwarranted conclusions about its extent there.
I am gratified, of course, that the record regarding the study and article has been corrected. But something still grates, and, I think, for good reason.
Because all that many, if not most, of the Jewish Week’s readers will likely ever remember about the entire business will be a mendacious headline. Despite all the setting straight of facts, what will remain in minds – not to mention in the eternal echo-chamber of cyberspace – will be only those deceptive, in fact slanderous, words.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]