The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in England and Wales was announced by Theresa May, on 7 July 2014. The inquiry was established to examine how the country’s institutions handled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse, particularly in light of the revelations relating to the conduct of Jimmy Saville. IICSA is a statutory inquiry with the power to compel sworn testimony and examine classified information.
The Inquiry has commissioned 12 separate sectoral investigations, including most recently, into religious organisations and settings.
The past two weeks have been devoted to examining responses to allegations of child sexual abuse in ‘non conformist’ Christian denominations – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists – as well as Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Rabbi Jehuda Baumgarten, speaking on behalf of the Stamford Hill based Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations started his evidence on Wednesday by interrupting Fiona Scolding QC, Counsel to the Inquiry, to remind her that he doesn’t speak English very well, and he may need extra time to respond.
If the Inquiry would have been conducted in Yiddish, he said, he would have had no problem keeping up. The Rabbi was born and raised in the United Kingdom.
In his written statement, he said that “City and Hackney’s Safeguarding Board, run by its chief executive, Jim Gamble, was ‘arrogant, overbearing and intrusive’. He argued that community members have a very different culture than the Board in respect of keeping children safe: although he did not provide details of the nature of any such safeguards.. He also criticised Migdal Emunah, for not seeking ‘collaboration or consent’.
Migdal Emunah it a charity which provides support to survivors of sexual abuse and their families, for which I work. They also raise awareness and provide education on the way sexual abuse affects our community.
There is no impediment to collaboration with institutions and individuals in the Haredi community, if that is something he seeks.
However, nobody should need “consent” to contact a charity if they need their services. Migdal Emunah can be reached on 03330064898.
Rabbi Baumgarten advanced the various theories that underpin his belief that abuse is rare in the charedi community, but admitted that he has no data to actually prove that assertion.
He provided a series of arguments in support of this strongly held belief. Modesty, he argued, ‘acts as a protection from unwanted advances’, and the laws of yichud, the prohibition against a man and woman secluding themselves together is a ‘protective factor’. However, this belief does not take into account the fact that abuse may be perpetrated by abusers of the same sex as their victims.
It is also distinctly possible that abusers do not actually care about restrictions in Jewish law. Other ‘protective factors’ that he listed include strong faith, strong nuclear families, strong community values and ‘a very chaste culture’.
Fiona Scolding QC reminded him that these are the very factors that might make it difficult to report abuse.
Rabbi Baumgarten welcomed Ms Scolding’s suggestion that Rabbis could do with being DBS checked ‘as it was something that wouldn’t interfere with their charedi values’. DBS checks reveal spent and unspent convictions.
However, such checks would constitute a toothless safeguard in a community where rates of reporting of sexual offences, leading to recorded convictions, are so low that they are statistically irrelevant.
Rabbi Baumgarten was not alone in his rejection of Migdal Emunah. In closing, the United Synagogue posited that ‘the 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, for it is in this way that their valuable input will be best accepted and absorbed by others seeking to safeguard and protect children.’
There is indeed value in engagement with religious communities, if those communities will permit it. However, criticism of failed practices should be regarded as both healthy and necessary. It should never be used by such communities as a reason to avoid dialogue.