A blight on the UK communal and religious leadership

Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. (Credit: Chief Rabbi's Office)
Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. (Credit: Chief Rabbi's Office)

Last week, the UK Government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), concluded its public hearings into Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings.

The Jewish community and other faith communities were investigated in terms of how they addressed the issue of child sexual abuse.

Both of our organisations, Kol v’Oz and Migdal Emunah, as well as several other local Jewish religious groups, received core participant status. This meant that we were all legally represented at the hearings, provided the opportunity to submit written and oral submissions and were intimately involved in the entire process.

For some context, for those familiar with the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (and its findings into the local Jewish community), the IICSA was a similar but greatly watered-down version of it.

From our perspective, the investigation into the Jewish community – essentially the ultra-Orthodox community – was fairly straightforward.

There were no real surprises.

It demonstrated that no matter where in the world, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has responded to allegations of child sexual abuse in its midst in the same, disgraceful manner: cover-ups, victim intimidation, lack of accountability or transparency and an ill-conceived focus on protecting the reputation of the community at the expense of those abused.

It also highlighted the absence of any effective strategy for preventing abuse.

Basically, it is a recipe for disaster. No substantive support or justice for victims, combined with denial and a lack of education on issues relating to child sexual abuse.

Yet, aside from not being contacted by any of the religious and broader community leadership prior or even during the IICSA investigation, the most distressing and disappointing revelation for us occurred on the final day of the hearings, and came courtesy of the United Synagogue and their spiritual leader, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

Firstly, Chief Rabbi Mirvis took to social media and posted commentary which showed that he had learned very little from the hearing and provided a clear example of how out of touch he and his was with victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and their families.

According to the Chief Rabbi, “The scourge of abuse perpetrated against children is a terrible blight upon any community and it is particularly difficult for a faith community to consider that the very institutions it has built for the benefit of the next generation, could unwittingly be providing a space in which they might come to harm”.

The Chief Rabbi went on to conclude that this was a time for “humility, and sensitivity to those who have been abused, and we must be ready to make whatever changes are needed”.

Having dedicated our lives to working in this space, we have learned many things.

It is precisely the mindset which considers abuse within a community as a “terrible blight upon any community” which is in need of change. Child sexual abuse is a fact in every community, including the Jewish community, notwithstanding that there is an enormous amount we can do to minimise risk if we take it seriously enough.

The “blight” upon the community typically comes from its response – when it fails to take steps to protect children from abuse and when it then turns on those who have been abused. The failures which make abuse possible followed by the ostracisation of victims as though they are bringing the community into disrepute by speaking up, the support of perpetrators of abuse, the celebration of them once they are released from jail if they make big donations and the unwillingness to hold to account those who are in positions of responsibility for the safety of children and fail – that is a “blight” upon the community.

Further, there is nothing about any of these actions or failures which can be described as ‘unwitting’.

Adults have known since the beginning of time that it is wrong to sexually abuse children. If they have not appreciated the full long-term impact, that is only because of their choice to remain ignorant. It certainly does not make their conduct ‘unwitting’.

Moreover, supporting sex offenders, both before and after their conviction, publicly lauding them, and then refusing to criticise such action, is as deliberate as can be.

The failure of Rabbis to call out their colleagues when they have acted so poorly has played a major part in the derisory response of Jewish communities globally in dealing with child sexual abuse.

With that in mind, the Chief Rabbi is right that it is a time for ‘humility and sensitivity to the needs of those who have been abused’ but why is it not also a time for accountability? Who is going to do something about those who stood by and allowed abuse to happen, who covered it up, who honoured the perpetrators and who exacerbated the pain and suffering of victims? Who is going to do something about those perpetuating the same harms today?

Without such accountability and understanding, victims cannot feel believed and understood.

Shortly after, the lawyer acting for the United Synagogue and the Chief Rabbi, presented their concluding statement which included the following which can only be described as victim-blaming: ‘[T]he ability of victim-focused organisations to put aside their understandable suspicion of religious communities and to adopt an approach based on positive engagement and dialogue as opposed to criticism and conflict is key[.]’

The lack of progress and engagement between us and the communal institutions who should be addressing the issue of child sexual abuse is not our fault. When we have tried to make progress with them quietly, we have largely been ignored. When we have been left with no choice but to draw attention to their inaction, we have been criticised for a lack of ‘positive engagement and dialogue’.

Ensuring the safety of children in our community and teaching leaders about this scourge should not be our responsibility. And if they would take this aspect of their role seriously, we would like nothing more than to leave it to them.

There is a Hebrew saying – Chabdehu ve’chashdehu – respect but treat with suspicion. That describes precisely how we approach institutions like the United Synagogue, the Office of the Chief Rabbi and religious communities.

It is not because we are ‘understandably suspicious’ but because of their ongoing failures, their refusal to properly deal with child sexual abuse within the community and the hypocrisy we witness when nice sounding statements are issued without accompanying action.

We fully agree with the Chief Rabbi that ‘positive engagement and dialogue’ is preferred. As we have done repeatedly in the past, whether it be with the Board of Deputies or the Chief Rabbi himself, we again offer this in good faith. But we are tired and pained by the lack of reciprocation.

It is clear to us the biggest barrier to communal and cultural change to date has not been us, but the religious and lay leadership itself who have let us down. And who are letting our children down today.

We hope that the IICSA hearings can be a watershed in the UK Jewish community’s approach to dealing with child sex abuse. We are willing and wanting to work productively and in good faith with any and all institutions who share our goal of eliminating child sexual abuse from our communities and who are prepared to take this issue seriously.

The time has passed for mere platitudes. It is time for action.

It is plain that child sexual abuse has been prevalent within the UK Jewish community, particularly the Orthodox community, and the response has left much to be desired.

The process of cultural change and education must start now and be led from the top, and with close collaboration with victim support and advocacy organisations.

Only then will we be able to say with confidence what perhaps the Chief Rabbi might have meant to say – we will do everything we can to ensure that the very institutions which we have built for the benefit of the next generation will no longer be a space where they might come to harm.

The above was co-authored by Manny Waks, CEO of Kol v’Oz, an Israel-based organisation combatting child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, and Yehudis Goldsobel,CEO of Migdal Emunah, a UK-based support and advocacy organisation for survivors of child sexual abuse. Both are also survivors of child sexual abuse.

About the Author
Manny Waks is an author, consultant, advocate and public speaker. He is the founder and CEO of Kol v'Oz, an Israel-based international organisation which addresses the issue of child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. He is also an abuse survivor in an Australian Chabad-run institution. His published memoir is titled ‘Who Gave You Permission?’.
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