The Royal Commission and the Jewish community

November 4, 2016 by Dr Michelle Meyer
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Tzedek welcomes today’s announcement that The Royal Commission will hold a public hearing in February 2017 into the current policies and procedures of five institutions previously examined by the commission.

This is the correct fileYeshivah Melbourne and Yeshivah Bondi is one of those institutions being recalled. This can only be good for the Jewish community. This enquiry will shed further light on current child safe standards, any possible organisational barriers to change and strategies for adopting a culture of child safety.

What has the Jewish community gained from the Royal Commission and has it all been good for the community? To date the Royal Commission has heard evidence in 45 public hearings about child sexual abuse within institutions of various types. These are exemplar case studies; they do not focus on individual cases, but on how institutions have responded to disclosures and proven cases of abuse. In addition to these much publicised hearings, there were 5,500 private hearings, which are now coming to an end. Those sessions have allowed survivors to share their stories in person with a Commissioner. Registrations for those private hearings closed on 30 September 2016.

Tzedek provides support and advocacy services to survivors of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. It is also committed to curbing sexual abuse within the Jewish community by providing prevention services, which include our own, culturally specific, protective behaviours program, Project J-Safe. Further to these goals, Tzedek is keen to know what can be learned from the work of the Royal Commission by and about institutions, survivors and perpetrators, to better assist the Jewish community in its response to child sexual abuse.

Regarding institutions, the Commission has shown how extensive the incidence of child sexual abuse has been within them. Among those that the Commission has analysed, the most highly represented, by far, were faith-based organisations, and Jewish institutions have not been immune from this. Most important to the Jewish community was the Commission’s examination, in its Case Study 22, of how our certain institutions responded to child sexual abuse.

That case study examined Chabad institutions in Australia, but it reverberated throughout our community. It highlighted serious institutional failings by the Yeshivah Centres in Melbourne and Sydney in their responses to child sexual abuse.

In the wake of that study, the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne embarked on its review of policy and procedure through accreditation with the Australian Childhood Foundation. The public campaign promoting this review was welcomed. However, confidence in cultural change will only be demonstrated after changes are made to its governance structure in line with recommendations of the recent audit. Little is known about the changes undertaken by the Yeshivah Centre in Sydney. Ultimately, the Royal Commission’s further enquiry will determine future outcomes.

The Commission has been an impetus for many Jewish organisations to be more vigilant in preventing child sexual abuse by implementing or changing child protection policies and procedures for responding to abuse. The JCCV ran training sessions in child protection policy, which were attended by staff from synagogues, youth movements, early learning centres, schools and other organisations providing services to children. Differences were put aside and organisations as diverse as Adass and Temple Beth Israel sat together, working for a common goal.

These changes are positive, but ultimately it will be palpable and conspicuous culture change that will prove to be the crucial factor in creating safe environments for children. Child protection must be embedded in the everyday practice of all of an organisation’s personnel – leaders, staff and volunteers. Temple Beth Israel has led the way in changing culture:

TBI has been running well received educational and practical ‘Safeguarding our Children’ workshops for our volunteers, teachers and tutors of TBI Tamid (our after school programme).  We want a ‘living’ Policy and Code of Conduct. Our committee meets regularly and remains updated regarding current legislation (Joanne Loewy).

Regarding survivors of sexual abuse, the Royal Commission has highlighted for all of us some of the long term impacts on them of the abuse they suffered. It has also broken the silence and provided an official platform for thousands of survivors to tell their stories. For many, it was their first opportunity to tell their story to officialdom and to be believed, acknowledged, validated and respected.

Jewish survivors participated in some of the 5,500 private sessions. They included survivors of institutional abuse within both Jewish and non-Jewish organisations. It is hard to know what impact the Royal Commission has had on them. Anecdotally, while the private hearings provided affirmation for some, others felt unsatisfied in their quest for vindication, keenly feeling the lack in their cases of a public hearing, on which some had pinned their hopes of achieving some measure of justice. Some tried to pursue that goal by other means, such as lobbying for law reform, or initiating civil suits or other processes of petitioning authority.

The Royal Commission estimated that there are as many as 60,000 survivors of abuse in Australia. A little over 60% are male, but there was a greater preponderance than that of male witnesses in the public hearings. A woman who wanted to testify In the Yeshivah Centre inquiry, but was denied the opportunity to do so, wrote about her elimination:

It is notable that all the victims testifying at the public hearing in this case study 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 varying degrees of gender segregation within the Orthodox Jewish communities, particularly within the Adass Israel schools and Yeshivah-Beth-Rivkah colleges.

Regarding perpetrators, the research from the Royal Commission found that the overwhelming majority (89%) were male. The Commission’s focus to date has been on adult perpetrators. There are many complexities about the management of adult sex offenders in the Jewish community, which will require careful development of organisational policy and training.

Peer to peer abuse requires further investigation and research. Tzedek has consulted with parents and schools on strategies to manage children demonstrating harmful sexual behaviours toward other children and prioritising child safety. We inform professionals, parents, youth leaders, children and adolescents about the dynamic of peer to peer abuse in our education programs. We welcome the recent announcement of a public hearing into the responses to children with problematic or harmful sexual behaviours in schools. This will broaden our understanding of this complex area of practice.

In January 2015, the Victorian government introduced new mandatory child safe standards for all organisations. The standards are a welcome extension to the child protection policies developed by institutions, but they will only be effective if organisations are committed to ongoing training of staff and volunteers. Tzedek is extensively involved in providing education programs to the Jewish community and will continue to do so to promote awareness of child safety.

This work is also mandated by our Jewish values. The Torah forbids indifference to others suffering harm. Leviticus 19:16, says, “Do not stand idly by while your fellow bleeds.” When institutions are found wanting in their safeguarding of children, with so much at stake, the responsibility to act rests upon the entire community and its leadership to proactively ensure child safety by systematically encouraging its organisations to develop policies and put in place practices that will create a safety culture, deter child abuse, and deal correctly with child sexual abuse when cases arise.

Dr. Michelle Meyer is the CEO of  TZEDEK

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