Exposing Sexual Abuse

There are so many incredibly positive things to write about that I have seen in the Perth Jewish community in just the past few days. 

A busload of campers from Bnei Akiva arrived at the Jewish Centre today, and a busload of Habonim campers departed.  Between the two youth movements there are more than 250 of our youth enjoying their winter holiday in an informal setting, critically analysing their Jewish and Zionist identity. 

Late last week, shiurim by visiting Rabbi’s.   We received visits from Rabbi Feldman of Sydney and Rabbi Rosensweig of Israel (Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Hamivtar), each with differing hashgafot but both sharing wonderful chiddushim.

A new family unpacks their bags, and is overwhelmed by the number of introductions and welcome into the community.   

There are weddings, births, bnei mitzvah, no shortage of simchas.  There are activities, events, fundraisers, and community programs.  There is chesed, goodwill, and great delight in participating in many community activities. 

I wish that I could write only of the good news.  Not all of it is exciting news, even for a blogroll, but it is a true and accurate reflection of the community life within which I am immersed. 

Sadly, I cannot focus on this positive energy for this blog post, as the issue at hand is too important to ignore and too disturbing to not provide comment.  Over the past few days it has been a topic of discussion within a number of local community settings, both formal and informal.  If this blog is to honestly portray a snapshot of the issues of the day and a sentiment of the Jewish community from the viewpoints of a few, then the unpleasant topic of this post must appear.   

The issue itself?  I’m compelled to write about the serious matter of child sex abuse which has plagued the Australian Jewish blogosphere and media over the past week, and now spilt over into the general media.  However before writing about this topic, I think it is important to reiterate that over and above the great shame that immoral criminals within the Jewish community bring to the reputation of the community, their actions also take from the huge amount of good and compassion that sits within Australian Jewry.  The sick and deranged sexual predators amongst us cause shock and grief, and even though we shouldn’t allow them to,  they still distract our focus from everything that is right about Jewish community life.  Hence the seemingly unrelated introduction to this post.  One scandel of any type is one too many. 

The news coverage of recent days has been focussed on a Yeshiva institution in Melbourne, that attempted to shift a problem, as opposed to address a problem.   These revelations are not new to the community, but having now spilt into the relam of the general media, have caused embarrasement and heated discourse. 

Nobody should attempt to provide an excuse or a sympathetic rationale in relation to the allegations.  Quite simply the alleged actions of the Yeshivah of covering up the situation and not exposing the criminal behavior that occured were wrong at the time, and remain wrong now.  There is no suggestion that the Yeshivah condoned or sanctioned the abusive activity of an employee, but it’s duty of care was to its students, not to its own institutional wellbeing.  It appears the Yeshiva attempted to manage the situation with discretion such that it did not become a matter of public interest.  The Yeshivah should not have attempted to protect its own reputation at the expense of dealing comprehensively and openly with the published incident.   The correct course of action for the Yeshiva should have been to “out” the situation, protect the victims, and ensure that absolutely no tolerance of criminal conduct would be left outside of the domain of the civil justice system. 

What occured, even if it was two or three decades ago, will remain with the victims forever.    

 Thankfully I have not been a victim of sexual abuse.  I have however been exposed to a situation that even now is difficult to discuss.  I cannot provide greater detail so as to protect the identity of the people involved.  The situation occured when I was in my early teens.  There was a close knit social group of Jewish children – we were in the same educational and social setting of the Jewish community.  There was a regular event that was scheduled for us as a group.  The girls within our group started to change following the establishment of this event.  There were arguements amongst them.  They started to rebel socially, some of them becoming anti-social and promiscuous.  As an adolescent male I wrote this off in the context of puberty, the maturing of our youth.

That summer we went to a camp and one of the girls was very disturbed.  We returned home from camp to learn that her parents had split up and her father had left the country, not to be seen again.  The social balance of us as a group of children never became fully restored.   It was only six years later that I learnt that some amongst this group of girls had been the victim of sexual abuse – to the father of our close friend.    

Jewish communities, as with many other communities, are not immune to abusive forces.  Even the most insular of Jewish communities are at risk, some even moreso due to their insularity and inability to draw on external resources.  Denying reality is no solution.  When children, who do not always possess the cognitive ability to discern when they are subject to unacceptable behavior, especially sexually abusive behavior, it is beyond intolerable.  In such situations the harm cannot be undone.  At least the victim can be counselled, but only if a line of support is in place.  What is most outrageous about the coverage of the Melbourne situation is that the issue for some was buried and therefore the support mechanisms that should have been provisioned were not put into place.   

The most important proactive remedy is to have role models and mentors available for children, people in whom children can have confidence.  This should be a community priority.  I’ve seen children deal with crisis relating to everything from bereavement, suicide, marriage breakups, and other broken relationships.  With the right medium of support they are invariably able to rise above their distress and predicament and develop coping mechanisms that serve them well in their future years.  However left alone, and they are at high risk of social breakdown. 

There are social workers within the Perth Jewish community, but there is no dedicated line of independent support that I am aware of for youth.  As the activities of Jewish Care and other agencies are managed with absolute discretion, I could well be wrong and such support could well be available to draw on if and when needed.  Even if so, it serves to emphasise the point that in order for help to be provided the problem needs to be identified.  Where there is a culture of “making the problem go away by hiding it” and not delivering full disclosure and alert, the community as a whole has an ethos that is most unhealty.  Sexual abuse does occur here in Perth, and incidents of sexual perversion that impact members of our Jewish community have occured relatively recently.  

Step number one; let’s not deny the problem.  Step number two; lets ensure that the victims of abuse know that they have a support safety net.  Step number three; raise awareness so that response mechanisms can be put into place.

The Jewish community in Perth is a wonderful community, with many wonderful people and wonderful facilities.  Beign part of the community is a very uplifting and positive experience.  We do however stand vulnerable to criminal behavior.   If, G-d forbid, this happens then the community leadership must be clear and decisive, open and transparent.  If left undisclosed, then the victim ends up bearing the blame and holding the responsibility for simply being a victim. 

It takes tremendous courage for the victims of abuse in Melbourne to step forward as they have done.  They should be admired for their actions.  Those amongst the ranks of the Jewish community who reacted to this issue by wishing (or believing) that it would simply go away over time ought to hang their heads with absolute shame.

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