When I was 17 years old and in my final year of high school, I was lured into the office of a doctor, who was a friend of my parents—a self-proclaimed (as I found out later) dermatologist specializing in acne care. When I arrived, he sat me down, showered me with compliments, and poured an unknown substance into my coffee. In a hazy state of inebriation and detached disbelief, he led me into his examination room, made me take off my shirt, bra and skirt, laid me down, and proceeded to molest me. I’ll spare you the details, as this story isn’t about him, anyway.
It’s about the stigma and shame that keeps people like him safe. It’s about a community that can’t acknowledge its part in all this. It’s about you.
When I got home the night of the assault, I somehow had the presence of mind to write everything down in my journal. It took 15, single-spaced pages for me to complete my outpouring of anger, betrayal and disbelief. I told a few people right away, including some close friends who advised me that there was really nothing I could do about it. My best friend at the time told her mom, who did nothing.
I couldn’t tell my parents. They put this man on a pedestal; “Call him ‘Rebbe’ when you see him!” they would exclaim. They found out eventually when my mom stumbled upon my hidden diary five years after the incident. She read it and then passed it to my dad. They immediately cut ties with the doctor and his family. However, instead of going to the police, they filed a complaint about the doctor with the Toronto beit din (rabbinic court).
Like in many other tight-knit religious and secular communities, many people are reluctant to register their complaint with the secular system because they feel bound to maintain the reputation of the frum community in the eyes of both Jews and non-Jews. Also, my parents were born in the late 1940s in post-Holocaust Europe. Jews certainly didn’t trust the secular authorities, and vice-versa. But I digress. The doctor admitted everything he did to me before the rabbinical tribunal. The rabbis gave him a fine. Then, they let him go home. The end.
Fast forward to 2017. The #MeToo movement was in full swing. I had never forgotten the fear and trauma of being molested, the humiliation of the beit din hearing, the subsequent payout, the horrible guilt that this pervert was still out there, and the deep, unshakable knowledge that justice has not been served. I had been in therapy and was on anti-anxiety medication since the age of 19, diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder.
Empowered by the stories emerging in the media, I finally worked up the courage to pursue charges. I reported the incident to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), and then Toronto police. I felt that the case was in the bag. After all, I had a diary with detailed information from my 17-year-old self, and a roomful of rabbis who witnessed his confession. The papers they gave me after the confession were in my possession—documents from the beit din saying I was to be paid a certain amount for “damages” (it did not specify the nature of those damages).
I had a friend whose mom worked in the office of the beit din at the time, and she smugly told me on many occasions that she knew all about the incident, as the relevant paperwork had passed over her desk. My friend said she would support me by attending my court dates with me. I felt strongly that my friend’s mother would come to my aid and testify on my behalf. However, when push came to shove and I approached my friend’s mother to ask her to come forward with testimony, she declined to give a police statement. My friend decided she couldn’t help me anymore because she knew the doctor’s family and “felt sorry for his kids.” I ended my friendship with her because I felt hurt and betrayed. It was among many disappointing encounters I had with people in the frum community.
When they were visited by the Toronto police detective, the rabbis of the beit din claimed they couldn’t remember what those damages were all about, and said that they kept no paperwork from so far back. Despite this, after a two-year wait, the police decided that I had a strong enough case to have the doctor arrested on two counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual exploitation of a young person. It would be another year before I had my day in court, which almost didn’t happen because the prosecutor had trouble convincing people to submit their testimony. It was then I painfully found out my own parents were reluctant to sign. The trial went on.
The CPSO also agreed to investigate and eventually flagged the doctor’s page on the college’s website for all to see. In an attempt to have other potential victims come forward, I sent the CPSO link to the doctor’s page, which stated the allegations, to friends I had grown up with in the community and who would have known my abuser and asked them for their help by posting the link to the page on their social media. Not one person posted it and most of them never even wrote back. I confronted a couple of them who I thought were my close friends. One said that it wasn’t his “place” to post these things (whatever that means) and the other admitted she was too frightened. Neither lives in Toronto, or did at the time.
The feelings of isolation, loneliness and betrayal are deep. Time after time, I see cases of people in the community who choose to turn a blind eye rather than confront someone whose behaviour harms the most vulnerable, or else convince the victim, family and community to keep it hush. This gives the perpetrator opportunities to lure in new victims and leaves a wake of broken people in his/her wake. (Yes, women can be abusers too.) This has to stop.
The Crown finally decided there was enough evidence to proceed to trial. I took the stand and faced my abuser for the first time in 23 years. As I write this, I’m coming down from the shell shock of a humiliating cross-examination. The trial was to continue in May 2020.
Update: June 2021
While waiting for what I hoped would be the final day in court in May 2020, the pandemic took over and all court cases were postponed. In an effort to do something about the growing backlog of postponed criminal cases, the Crown decided to withdraw my case.
Maddeningly, Leon Herman, the doctor at the centre of this case, had seen his opportunity to flee and ran to northern Israel, where he claimed that he had little access to stable internet and was in general not tech-savvy enough to operate Zoom-type platforms. Bringing him back to stand trial was impossible. How he was able to get on a plane to Israel while facing criminal charges for sexual assault, I’ll never know. Since the Crown had little chance of successfully prosecuting him, it withdrew the charges.
Thankfully, the CPSO saw it differently. In October 2020, a college tribunal revoked Herman’s medical licence, found that he engaged in “disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional” conduct by sexually abusing a patient (me), and ordered him to repay $22,000 in costs to the college.
It was a cathartic moment to finally have someone other than my therapist acknowledge that the man who had hurt me deeply would no longer be able to practice medicine in Ontario. It came a little too late to make any difference in his career: Herman saw the writing on the wall and retired as soon as he was charged with sex crimes. He didn’t attend the hearing at the CPSO, but sent two lawyers who sat impassively the whole time.
I went public and posted the results of the CPSO hearing to Facebook. All that information had already been posted anyway on the CPSO website, so I no longer feared being sued for libel or being caught with tiny variations in stories on social media. Public disclosures like this have been exploited by defence lawyers in the past.
On Facebook, I publicly invited all those who feared confronting their attackers or felt confounded by a looming, confusing legal procedure to contact me for comfort and advice. Many, many people wrote in about how they felt sorry for me for having lived through such a nightmare. I responded with, “don’t feel bad for me. I won. I confronted my past. I challenged the system. I instigated change.”
There will always be horrible people who want to take advantage of innocence and trust. But perhaps they will read my story and think twice about being abusive over fears of being prosecuted. Perhaps someone who is suffering silently will hear my story and know that there is a way out, and even if the results aren’t ideal, as in my case, they will find comfort and closure by taking action.
Perhaps the beit din will advise parents who approach them for arbitration to contact the police instead of taking pains to conceal pedophiles. Maybe, just maybe, parents will teach their children to trust themselves, and that any unwanted touch is bad touch, and that no one—no rabbi, no relative, no doctor, no teacher—is allowed to make them feel unsafe. In 2022, I had the publication ban lifted from both the CPSO and Ontario courts so I could share my story and hope that some good comes of it.
Lorie Wolf is a musician, composer and educator living in Toronto.