Keeping school children safe from sexual predators

The books of Chaim Walder that used to take pride of place have been binned by readers and recalled by publishers around the world. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 (Via Jewish News)
The books of Chaim Walder that used to take pride of place have been binned by readers and recalled by publishers around the world. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 (Via Jewish News)

I helped set up Nahamu, a Jewish human rights lobbying group to raise awareness of harms in the charedi community. One of the harms we lobby on is the lack of reporting of abuse, including child sex abuse, to the police. In the aftermath of the Chaim Walder saga, I had hoped that the tide might be turning, and that there would be an awakening that the only way to keep children safe would be to ensure that all incidents are reported (on a timely basis) to the police, with communal support for victims and their families. I was therefore alarmed to read Eli Spitzer’s blog where he instead advocates a two-prong approach; for schools to teach children about predators, and for abuse to be reported to a Beis Din. (On a similar basis to the Tzefat Beit Din that took testimony from the Walder victims, such that if they find that the abuse happened, they can then warn the community about the predator.)

Considering Eli’s position as a head of a school, I find his stance both dangerous and naïve. Similarly, a recent email circulated by ChinuchUK puts the focus on providing important evidence of good practice (i.e. compliance and how to pass an Ofsted report) rather than on implementing the good practice in lines with government guidance needed to create safer schools.

Dealing with Eli’s second prong first.

The only reason that the Tzefat Beit Din was able to conclude Chaim Walder had been a long-term abuser was because so many victims came forward, reporting a consistent pattern over many years. Furthermore, by that point many victims had already spoken to Ha’aretz, which had published a well-researched expose, without which many victims would not have known to come forward. A further problem with having a Beis Din investigate abuse includes the fact that the Dayanim simply do not have the skills or knowledge of all the various professionals involved in a criminal proceeding; police, doctors, judge, jury, psychologist, therapist, social workers, ISVAs (Independent Sexual Violence Advisors) and others. Another concern, when (unlike the Chaim Walder incident) the allegation is not in the public domain, is that the Beis Din could have a vested interest, to not believe the victims (often women and children, i.e., not halachic witnesses), thus letting the accused (often an adult man) continue in his current role and molest more children. Even if the Beis Din concludes that there was abuse, they have no means to punish a perpetrator (unlike a criminal court which can imprison someone who commits a crime).  Additionally, their remit to broadcast any abuse they find may not be international, such that the perpetrator could continue in a similar role in a school in an overseas community.

In most cases there aren’t dozens of victims queuing up to report similar offences. With a lone incident the Beis Din are likely to dismiss the case due to lack of evidence. Which brings me to my concern with his second prong, the education of children. The problem (see Migdal Emunah statement on IICSA p56) with a workshop in school telling children that “their private parts are private – say no – tell an adult”, is that the onus of protecting children has been put by the adults onto the children themselves. This might make the adults feel better, but self-protection becomes an additional burden on the children concerned. This is a big problem in a community that does not encourage reporting abuse to the police and has not taken other steps to keep its children safe. With a high likelihood of predators in circulation in the charedi community due lack of police reporting, many charedi children will encounter a predator. This sets the children up to feel an additional layer of shame and victim blaming if they do not manage to say no or tell an adult in time.

Context is everything. Of course, in line with recent government guidance “Keeping children safe in education 2021” parents should be having conversations with their children from early childhood about not keeping secrets, encouraging transparency and around body autonomy.

However, for good reason, it’s no longer best practise for prevention education (known as ‘stranger danger’) to be provided in schools. Jewish schools must find better ways to keep their pupils safe; and this includes reporting of all incidents to the police. We are awaiting the conclusions of IICSA, and we hope that there will be mandatory police reporting for all teachers in all schools.

About the Author
Eve Sacks is a co-founder of Nahamu, a think-tank lobbying on harms in the Charedi community, and a trustee of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK.
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