Everyone got it wrong in Boston rabbi case

By David Clohessy

I feel sorry for headline writers. I really do. They've got so little space to both summarize long stories AND attract readers' attention. 

So I cut them lots of slack. But it's tough to see headline writers at three news outlets get one story SO wrong as the recent one involving Boston Rabbi Barry Starr who allegedly sexually exploited a teenager and then apparently misled and stole from his flock to conceal his crimes.

The Boston Globe's headline read

“Rabbi allegedly misused funds to keep liaison with teen quiet

The Raw Story opted for

“Boston rabbi accused of misusing $480K in temple funds to pay off gay sex accuser

The Jewish Daily Forward went with:

Boston Rabbi Barry Starr Paid Teenage Boy $500K To Cover Up Affair

At best, these headlines miss the point. At worst, they're dreadfully misleading.

Let's go one by one and examine the problems here.

--When adults have sex, it's a “liaison.” When an adult sexually exploits a 16 year old, it's a crime. Words like “affair,” “liaison” and “relationship” imply consent. And a child cannot consent to having sex with an adult (even if the predator is gentle and convinces the child that it's “love”).

–The word “gay” here is wrong. For starters, it too implies consent. (Contrast, for example, the phrase “gay sex” with the phrase “heterosexual rape.”) It also suggests that the rabbi may be gay, which may or may not be the case. (Abuse, most therapists say, is about power, not about sexual orientation.) It suggests that the victim may be gay. And finally, it's irrelevant (Why not say “rough sex” or “naked sex?” Because this has no bearing on the crime itself: a grown up sexually exploiting a youngster. )

And how about the word “accuser?” As I read these articles, the rabbi never denies that he “had sex with” a sixteen year old. So doesn't the word “accuser” also minimize or mischaracterize what happened here.

Finally, there's the question of emphasis. If a bank robber parked improperly during his crime, the headline would not read “Alleged criminal parked illegally and robbed bank.”

So why did some coverage stress Rabbi Starr's alleged financial crimes and minimize his sexual crimes? Shouldn't the headline have read something like “Rabbi is accused of child sex abuse and theft?”

It helps predators and hurts victims when we describe child sex crimes in ways that diminish or downplay these crimes.



Showing 8 comments

  • Reason Accuracy
    commented 2014-06-07 22:30:19 -0500
    Also, although I disagree with the law on this matter, since Massachusetts state law defines the age of consent as 16 it would be libel for the media to describe an alleged relationship between an adult and a 16 year old as “child sex abuse.” Under Massachusetts law, misguided though it may be, that relationship is indeed a “liaison,” or an “affair.” As a legal matter the media have that correct. I and you will undoubtedly agree that the law has it wrong but that is not for the media to unilaterally change in its reporting. They can’t call it “child sex abuse” if the law calls it merely sex.
  • Reason Accuracy
    commented 2014-06-07 17:02:10 -0500
    Having read the coverage very carefully, and being a strong and consistent advocate for the issues you raise, I’m sad to see that you seem to have the story very wrong yourself. For the record, I strongly agree with you—stories about adults “involved with” children should use the correct terms. This is not “having sex.” It is rape. And it is long past time we rejected the rape culture that so often suggests otherwise in headlines and stories and lenient sentences for adult abusers of children. But you state the rabbi never denied being involved with a 16 year old. That is incorrect. He denied it consistently even in his own e-mail exchange with the extortionist and although you seem to have missed it, that is in the publicly reported record. Indeed, the only evidence, if it can be called evidence, that Starr had any involvement of any kind with anyone underage is the allegation by Nicholas Zemeitus that Starr was involved with his 16 year old brother. The reporting makes it clear that there is no evidence Zemeitus even has a brother (and his father’s on line obituary tellingly mentions only Nicholas as a child), nor any evidence to date that he ever actually had the kinds of photos he claimed to have had. Clearly this rabbi did something with someone that he was prepared to go to great lengths to keep quiet, but you do your cause no service by stating as fact allegations for which there is as yet no credible evidence beyond the claims of a petty criminal. You’re right—the headline writers seem to have the story wrong, but not in the way you say. They have it far more wrong than failing to identify abuse as abuse. Did this rabbi cheat on his wife? Yes, that is clear. Did he troll sleazy internet sites for sexual encounters of some kind? Yes, that seems well established. Did he seek to borrow money from congregants to pay off the extortionist and use a synagogue account in his control to manage those funds? Yes, that seems well established. Were some donation checks compromised through some action of either the rabbi’s or the extortionist’s? Yes, that, too, seems well established though precisely what the rabbi’s role was in that is not yet known and there is also as yet no charge from either the synagogue nor the authorities that he actually embezzled synagogue funds. But did this rabbi molest children? That is decidedly not established beyond the claim by Nicholas Zemeitus that he was involved with a teenage brother that does not exist. At this time that claim seems to me wholly unsubstantiated beyond the claims of a bottom feeding extortionist with a tenuous relationship with the truth and a criminal record spanning, according to the Globe’s reporting, his entire adult life.
  • Timothy Egan
    commented 2014-05-24 19:23:27 -0500
    “It helps predators and hurts victims when we describe child sex crimes in ways that diminish or downplay these crimes.”

    You’re getting warmer…. The problem with most people is that they refuse to think that things are worse than they appear on the surface. For example: “At best, these headlines miss the point. At worst, they’re dreadfully misleading.” What should be said is:

    “At best, these headlines are dreadfully misleading. At worst, they’re knowingly deceitful”.

    Sound too extreme? The truth will be revealed in full upon the Day of Judgement.
  • James LeBoeuf
    commented 2014-05-21 23:13:59 -0500
  • Lani Halter
    commented 2014-05-21 12:35:08 -0500
    I too, want to thank you Mr. Clohessy, for taking the time to correct the misrepresentation of Rabbi Barry Starr’s crimes, as well as pointing out that this isn’t the first case of misrepresenting these crimes against children and youths.
    Sometimes, the reporting of the crimes of child sex abuse seems to be being done by a “bored” and “disinterested” team of reporters that often remind me of an “ol’ boys network”, a network that we began to define as such, way back in the beginning of the peace movement and woman’s lib and the civil rights movements. The “ol’ boys network” of men and now, women, just seem to be so “afraid” of having both the criminal and the criminal’s crimes actually publically defined and named. I am reminded of so often hearing tv news reporters and police officers referring to arrested suspects (who for all intents and purposes appear to be very obviously criminal men), “gentlemen”.
    I’ve noticed that too often this attitude and mis-use of words, terms and definitions seems to be true in all the venues where the exploitation and torture of children is occuring around the globe. It seems that this misprepresentation occurs more often than not; and generally very often goes undisputed or corrected to the point that many of us forget to notice that we have just been “hoodwinked” by it.
    What a sad mess all of this is.
    Mr. Clohessy, I don’t know how often your blogs on SNAP are published as letters to the editor of major US publications, but this blog is certainly one of yours that I would be very glad to know was made public on a large scale.
  • Annette Kissell Nestler
  • Annette Kissell Nestler
    commented 2014-05-21 11:51:39 -0500
    Thank you for this informative piece, David. I will repost and ask others to do the same. It is so important the lay population be educated on the reality of the crime committed. Journalistic semantics are revictimizing.
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