Benny Forer, Debunking the Myth of Defamation in Sex Abuse Cases

In a recent statement to the Los Angeles community, Rabbinical Leaders intimated that the reporting of abuse to local law enforcement might subject the reporting party (victim or mandated reporter) to State defamation laws.

Aside from addressing many of the misstatements of law, inaccuracies about their roles, etc. it is imperative that this perspective be clarified.

California Civil Code section 47 provides for a “privileged” communication (i.e., one of immunity) where the communication was made to report a crime, or making a statement to Law Enforcement concerning a crime.

  1. A privileged publication or broadcast is one made: 

(a) In the proper discharge of an official duty. 

(b) In any (1) legislative proceeding, (2) judicial proceeding, (3) in any other official proceeding authorized by law, or (4) in the initiation or course of any other proceeding authorized by law and reviewable pursuant to Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 1084) of Title 1 of Part 3 of the Code of Civil Procedure, except as follows:


(d) (1) By a fair and true report in, or a communication to, a public journal, of (A) a judicial, (B) legislative, or (C) other public official proceeding, or (D) of anything said in the course thereof, or (E) of a verified charge or complaint made by any person to a public official, upon which complaint a warrant has been issued. (2) Nothing in paragraph (1) shall make privileged any communication to a public journal that does any of the following: (A) Violates Rule 5-120 of the State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct. (B) Breaches a court order. (C) Violates any requirement of confidentiality imposed by law.

What does this mean? Anyone can make a police report of abuse, and be shielded from a lawsuit for defamation. Thus, a victim that reports abuse to the police, even if the case cannot be prosecuted (because there is insufficient evidence, its not provable, or other reasons), they will be protected from any civil liability for this report.

Contrast this with making a statement to a Rabbinical Board. First, such a statement does constitute defamatory language and can subject the victim to being sued! Second, the police will maintain confidentiality until they can bring charges, whereas a Rabbinical Board will not.

Take the scenario to its logical entirety. A victim tells four rabbis she was abused. What is the next step? They obviously would never act on the victim’s word alone…right? Rather, they call in the accused and confront him. Necessarily (and by Halachic requirements) they shed the victim of her anonymity. The accused admits or denies. If he admits, the Board acts to “treat/evaluate/heal” him.

Guess what? The victim made an accusatory statement that is defamatory and not privileged. She can be sued.

In sum: you are much better off telling the police than rabbis. With the police, you will be protected from being sued. Whereas in the latter scenario the accused can sue you for defamation.

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