Child sexual abuse: a female voice

March 25, 2016 by  
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This article is written by a female survivor of child sexual abuse in an institutional setting in the Australian Jewish community.

This is the correct fileDr. Michelle Meyer is CEO of Tzedek, an advocacy service for survivors of child sexual abuse, is promoting her voice, both as an opportunity for her to tell her story but also in the hope that it will encourage others to speak up. And whilst this story took place in the Australian Jewish community, it is also an international story.

A victim tells her story:

The Catch 22 of Case 22.

Established in 2013, the work of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse continues throughout the nation. As it does so, my community struggles to find its feet on the shifting sands.

In the wake of the Royal Commission’s case study #22 – its probe of the the Yeshivah/Beth Rivkah community – rabbis have stood down, boards have been dissolved and reconstituted, committees were appointed and policies and procedures have been revisited and reviewed. New legislation and safeguards have also been implemented.

But as the fallout continues and the school and community hasten to recalibrate, a number of issues have been overlooked, two of which are: the lack of the female voice in the narrative, and the cultural stigma attached to having been sexually abused.

The lack of the female voice in the narrative

With all due respect to the Royal Commission and with high regard to the tight parameters and terms of reference that it must work within, the absence of female witnesses leaves the investigation of events at the Yeshivah-Beth-Rivkah schools incomplete.

I stressed my concern over this omission to the lawyer submitting my application to be a witness at the open hearings. He wrote:

It is notable that all the victims giving evidence as witnesses at the public hearing of this case are male. There is a risk that the experiences of the female children exposed to sexual abuse within the relevant institution are not being considered. This is especially important, because of the imposition of greater or lesser degrees of gender segregation within the Orthodox Jewish communities, and particularly within the Adass Israel school and Yeshivah-Beth-Rivkah colleges.

The circumstances of my sexual abuse at Yeshivah-Beth-Rivkah were contemporaneous with the experience of the other witnesses appearing at the public hearing, and the institution was under the same management. My case fit in with the scope of the inquiry, nevertheless, my request to be heard at the open hearing was not granted.

My disappointment was more than just personal; I was also concerned for the community, and felt that this was a missed opportunity. In a personal plea to the commissioner I wrote:

I have grave concerns that in a community where a woman’s voice is already second to that of a man, excluding our voices in this open public hearing may have a most detrimental impact, disenfranchising us further. This may well make it all the harder for women in the Jewish community to speak out against their perpetrators and/or institutions where they were sexually abused.

We now acknowledge the reality that sexual abuse does indeed occur within our community, but we must also give due cognisance to the horrific statistics that one in three girls and one in six boys under the age of 15 are sexually abused. The implications of this should be clear: institutional child sexual abuse also occurs within the female sector of our community.

The lack of female voices in the public narrative engendered by the Royal Commission’s work tends to reinforce a disturbing misconception that child sexual abuse in our community is confined to its male population. The perception that abuse of boys is not just criminal but also unnatural and against the Jewish religion has swayed the community’s attention to assign more gravity to these heinous acts over the acts committed against females.

The existence of this misconception is evidenced by comments such as, “Thank God it’s not happening on our side of the fence,” being bandied about the community.

I know that the Royal Commission’s staff also considers such a misapprehension to be far from desirable. They have told me that the Commission had heard my concerns and wanted to relay that they were aware that there were female indeed female victims/survivors of institutional child sexual abuse within the Yeshivah-Beth-Rivkah community.

Notwithstanding this, our voices, the voices of the women, are still very much marginalised within our community.

The cultural stigma attached to having been sexually abused

In the public arena, the right words are being uttered. Permission to disclose and report child sexual abuse has been granted. However, there is still a prevailing undercurrent of pressure to remain silent.

The community may have indeed become alert to the possibilities of grooming and sexual abuse, but this has not changed a deeply seated cultural stigma around these issues.

The reactions I have experienced when talking to family members and others in the community have been far from supportive and encouraging. I have received comments such as:

  • Shoin (okay), so your life was wrecked, you’re damaged goods, but why go out of your way to wreck other peoples’ lives?
  • I get where you are coming from, but really it’s not fair for you to expect them (i.e. the frum community) to understand.
  • In this life everyone has their own pekl (burden). You just need to shoulder it and keep on going.

And even more painful are comments like:

  • Why would you speak out? Why would you go to the police or to court?
  • You will besmirch the family’s name!
  • What will everyone think of us? Have you thought for a moment about our standing in the community?
  • What did your brothers and sisters ever do wrong for you to wreck their lives?
  • How can you even think of doing this when you know it will affect the marriageability of the others in your family?

My voice, my wellbeing, and my empowerment have been taken away over and over again. It started with the sexual abuse perpetrated on me from the age of 15 and it continues every time I am told, explicitly or implicitly, that I have no right to talk, no right to redress no right to justice. This reinforces the dynamics that sex abusers count on to avoid being exposed or held accountable for their crimes.

The catch 22:

I would love to be able to put my name to this piece, to be able to take up my own call for my voice to be heard, to stand up for myself and publicly come forward. But how can I when, concurrently with this ‘encouragement,’ I am being told that doing so would be selfish, that I should be ashamed of even thinking this way, that I should just accept and, bizarrely, be grateful that my needs and my rights are being sacrificed for the greater good of the family and the community.

Try as I might, I can’t seem to navigate my way out of this catch 22, so until I do, I will sign my name only as…

Gagged by the catch 22 of case 22.

This story was submitted by Tzedek and is unedited


4 Responses to “Child sexual abuse: a female voice”
  1. Paul Winter says:

    Paedophilia is a disgusting form of criminal abuse and should be severely punished. It should also be exposed. Remaining nameless helps no-one. Listening those who want to avoid public scrutiny doubles the victimhood.

    Having said that, just a few points:
    * the figure of one girl in every three and one boy in every six being an abuse victim is a made up unsubstantiated statistic. Even one in a million is one too many.
    * one is a victim of abuse, not its survivor; sexual (or psychological or social) abuse does not kill like physical abuse or illness. Abuse is horrible and in some cases can lead to self-harm, but let’s not dramatise it.
    * the issue is not the victimhood of boys against girls, but that of all children, of society which has to pick up the pieces to heal the victim and of our religion which such depraved behaviour tarnishes.

    • Michelle S says:

      I’m sorry, but sexual/psychological/social abuse does not kill? What rock do you live under? What an ignorant comment. I certainly hope no one close to you has ever been a victim, lest they “dramatise it”. Pathetic.

  2. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    I would encourage you to do what you feel is right for you. It is arrogant and cowardly of others in the community to speak as they do. It is their priorities that are selfish, and that they would prefer to protect a reputation that is false, rather than follow truth and morality, and protect young people, is a disgrace. It’s poor by humane standards and its poor by Jewish ethical standards.

    I know it is not easy to go against this kind of family/community solidarity, and harassment, however, if you would, as you say, love to, and you feel it the right thing to do for yourself, and perhaps for the future of others in like circumstances, then do it. At the end of the day, is it worth keeping the friendship and approval of people and institutions who have no proper regard for the wrongdoing done to you, or for you as a person? I say no. Those who speak as they do, do not deserve your silence. And you should not be asked to sacrifice yourself to what is only a veneer of goodness.

    Every life is important. Every voice is unique and deserves to be heard. And nobody has the right to expunge it. You will remain a shadow of the person you could be if you allow such bullying.

    Thank you for sharing your story and one day perhaps I shall know your name.

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