Child Abuse Royal Commission – The Curtain Fall

April 3, 2017 by Michelle Meyer
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As I write this, as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (R.C.) is conducting its Case Study 57…writes Dr Michelle Meyer, CEO, Tzedek.

It announced a few days ago that this will be its final round of public hearings. For the Jewish community, the final curtain fall came last Thursday (March 23), when the R.C. held case study 53, in which it recalled the Chabad-run Yeshivah schools of Melbourne and Sydney to review their policies, procedures and cultural changes since the R.C.’s findings about them in Case Study 22.

Michelle Meyer

That hearing was expected to shed light on two critical issues: How do institutions accept responsibility for repairing the harm caused by sexual abuse of children in their care and do these institutions meet the child safety expectations set by the R.C.

The witnesses were heard in two panels. The morning one consisted of highly placed communal leaders, both lay and religious. The leadership of the two Yeshivah schools formed the afternoon panel.

Some key statements were made by members of the morning panel. The Commission asked them to comment on the issue of the Yeshivah community labelling as mosers (snitches) or otherwise shunning reporters of abuse or abuse survivors and their families. The tone for our expectations of leadership was set by ECAJ president, Anton Block, who said that there is no place in our society whatsoever for those who participate in such shunning, and that they are complicit in the abuse perpetrated on the victim. Survivors have reported ongoing bullying and ostracism by Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre. (It is fair to characterise this as action by the Yeshivah Centre, because a letter to the entire Yeshivah community from its management states, “We also consider that the behaviours tolerated by the Yeshivah Centre on its premises represent a response of the Centre itself.” See: tiny.cc/yeshivahletter15oct2015 for the full text.) Survivors are also outraged that members of the old guard remain in power.

Our leaders should take example from other heads of faith-based institutions who have led the way by taking responsibility for their past failings. The Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Reverend Herft, quit after admitting he had let down survivors of child sexual abuse. He concluded his evidence at the R.C. with an apology to the people of Newcastle, where he served as bishop between 1993 and 2005. He said, I have let down the survivors in a way that remorse itself is a very poor emotion to express.”

Reverend Herft’s resignation was the final step in accepting responsibility for the harm caused to the victims he had failed to protect. For them and for the people, it was a step forward.

The R.C.’s findings regarding Yeshivah Melbourne were highly critical of the responses by its leadership to past cases of child sexual abuse.

  • There was a marked absence of supportive leadership for survivors of child sexual abuse and their families within Yeshivah Melbourne.
  • The leadership did not create an environment conducive to the communication of information about child sexual abuse. If anything, the mixed messages were likely to have produced inaction.
  • If the Yeshivah Melbourne…had shown leadership, survivors of sexual abuse and their families and supporters might have received a very different response from the members of the Yeshivah Melbourne community.

How do we move forward from here? A question that has been raised in this context is whether some of the leaders could do or have done teshuvah. At its minimum, teshuvah means admitting that one has done something wrong, apologising and asking for forgiveness, and promising to not do it again, but to radiate Jewish values, it should be more transformative of character and behaviour, which requires deep personal introspection.

There may be far more to do teshuvah for than most people are aware of. In news just to hand, a submission to the R.C. for Case Study 57, running now, cites neuroscience research showing mounting evidence that child sexual abuse can cause permanent brain damage that affects a person for life. At: tiny.cc/csamentaleffects you can hear the ABC’s report on this in its AM program of March 27.

Leaders may do teshuvah, but they do not exist in isolation. Tzedek, as a support service for survivors of abuse, advocates that primary consideration be given to the needs of survivors. What does it mean for survivors when leaders who failed them in their childhood by not prioritising their protection from sexual predators remain in positions of honour or power in an institution which is still not supportive of them in their adulthood and allows their further abuse in the form of bullying and ostracism?

Tzedek has received a number of calls from survivors and from concerned members of the community seeking action in response to the findings of the R.C.

  • Until Yeshivah starts to properly deal with those involved in the (mis-)conduct towards victims highlighted by the Royal Commission, talk of change from Yeshivah is meaningless. (survivor)
  • The community is choking whilst the old leadership is still in place. (anonymous).
  • Where is the community? (survivor)
  • The pain comes from the lack of acknowledgement. (survivor)
  • I have been re-traumatised by the recent public statement from a leader in the Yeshivah organisation that they have done nothing to cause harm to victims of abuse. These comments were offensive. (survivor)
  • Teachers are dealing with bullying in the workplace at Yeshivah, so by extension this is not a safe place for our children. (anonymous)

In a restorative justice program for survivors of sexual abuse in the Australian Defence Force, survivors met with representatives from the institution to voice their pain and to receive acknowledgement of their suffering. One of the most positive outcomes reported by survivors was that the new guard within the institution represented hope for a safer future and demonstrated assurances of institutional change to protect future members.

How can we apply the principles of this model to assist survivors within the Yeshivah community? The path to repairing harm for survivors must include palpable and conspicuous culture change within the organisation. This includes acknowledgement of and remorse for harms done (which, as mentioned above, may be more profound than most people realise) and a demonstrable ability to promote future protection.

The Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand publicly stated, “Those who denigrated or undermined the victims have lost their moral right to serve as leaders in our communities.” This requires removal of those in authority who have not demonstrated remorse for past failures and capacity for meaningful change.

To quote Steve Dimopoulos MP for Oakleigh (7 December 2016) in speaking on the Wrongs Amendment (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2016

There is a whole lot of lack of leadership and a whole lot of complicit people in what ended up being a travesty for a whole range of families. It occurred in many faiths and in many institutions.

Ultimately, when the rest of the community sees a leadership demonstrating care and support for those who experienced abuse in the past, that is what will inspire confidence in us to entrust our children into their care in the future.

The announcement a few days ago that the R.C. is conducting its final Case Study gives additional poignancy to Justice McClellan’s parting words to the witnesses comprising the morning panel of Case Study 53. He looked at them very earnestly and said, gently and meaningfully,

Each of you has a significant leadership role in your community and when we’re finished, the community will look to all of you to continue in the direction that you’ve indicated you are now proceeding in. We wish you well in those endeavours.

As the curtain falls, we, the Jewish people of Australia, now call on those same people to take that admonition to heart.

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