The Jewish community is reeling after the recent case study as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. From the perspective of an ‘insider’ who personally knows almost all of the people involved, it’s especially painful. I am related to victims, to people accused of abuse, and to people in senior positions in the community. That’s the way things work in close-knit communities: there are many overlapping and complex inter-relationships, and the way such a community is portrayed to the outside world is often a grossly simplistic narrative that conveniently ignores the many sub-plots that lurk below the surface.
Many people in our community knew of cases of child abuse (both domestic and sexual), knew of attitudes and cultures of the time, and knew of the governance failures. Having all this on display for the world to see was like ripping a bandaid from a festering wound, in super-slow motion.
The suffering of some victims who bravely chose to tell their stories in public was heart-rending, and brought home fully the impact of these crimes on the lives of victims. Those who thought we could “handle these things internally” were proved very wrong. The actions of those who sought to protect the memory and honour of the late Rabbi Groner OBM led to the very opposite. And the perception by some of leadership as a life-long privileged appointment from on-high was shattered forever.
As the public hearing continued, emotions started to simmer throughout the community, and found an unfortunate public outlet through social media. The vitriol and hate speech directed at ‘insiders’ was quite shocking, often coming from people whose only knowledge of the Chabad community was what they had read in the paper or in social media. The eagerness of people to make judgments and to treat the Royal Commission as ‘Chabad on trial’ was deeply disturbing to insiders. Many insiders also made their feelings clear. They lashed out both at the incomplete narrative about their community, at their own leaders, who failed to protect children and whose inaction culminated in public disgrace, and at Rabbis who disgraced far more than just their peers.
What was meant to be an exploration meant to make our institutions safer for children lit flame wars across the internet, and seething anger in search of a target. Victims had complained of intimidation, bullying, public persecution and slander, and yet these same instruments were being directed at an entire community now accused of protecting paedophiles. The regular inflammatory headlines only helped fan the flames.
And now we sit in the aftermath. Several leaders have fallen on their swords and no doubt more will come, and others are hardly lining up to take their places. After all, who would want to be a leader in the current toxic environment? Emotions are still running high, and pronouncements are coming from all parts of the community. The efforts of Yeshivah to implement best practice in child protection, articulated so passionately by Principal Rabbi Smukler, almost fell on deaf ears.
Over the summer I visited several Chabad communities in North America. In discussions with community leaders and advocates, I learnt that in those communities, there remains even today reluctance by some Rabbis to report paedophiles who are known to be currently offending. I found this quite astounding! In the face of leaders not prepared to do what is right, advocates have established a vigilante-style web site that ‘outs’ known paedophiles. In Melbourne over the last few years, schools and youth groups have taken on the challenge of child protection, and have embarked on extensive staff training, exemplified by the JCCV Child Protection Training programs. Insiders consider it nigh impossible that a current offender would be protected. Friends in the US kept asking me: “What on earth is going on in Melbourne? Is it as bad as people make out?”
The answer is not a simple one; it’s dangerous to compare degrees of ‘bad’. We have had our failings, in terms of the way abuse claims were handled, and in terms of the governance now that continues to retain the closed structures of the past. We might look at other Jewish communities and think that “it’s not as bad here”, but that is no excuse not to address our own deficiencies. We can also say that we’ve only heard part of the story even here in Melbourne. A lot of publicity has surrounded abuse cases in the Yeshivah community, but it would be naive to suggest that similar has not happened in other schools and shuls around Melbourne. In time, those too will be exposed, although perhaps not with the same degree of sensationalism.
When ‘insiders’ vent and criticize, it does not imply G-d forbid that they give a higher priority to the reputation of an organisation than the protection of children. This should have – could have – been a bloodless revolution. But egos and culture got in the way, and now we must all bear the cost of the ‘collateral damage’.
How can we move forward from this? How can we defuse the tension that now grips our community? After we all take a deep breath, here are a few salient points to note:
- Our children are no safer now than they were a month ago. The efforts to improve child protection policies are well established in our institutions, and everyone is jumping on board. This is a huge win and should be celebrated. The governance and leadership issues identified by the Royal Commission will take many months or even years to fully address.
- The Royal Commission is not a trial. The ‘rules of evidence’ do not apply, and it is not about finding individuals guilty or not-guilty. Testimony given under oath includes opinions, inferences, and biases. I trust that our Commissioners will see through the fog and make meaningful findings, and we should sit back and let them do that. This process is about exploring a topic, and making broad recommendations for improvements. It is about the big picture.
- The black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us narratives floating around the place are simplistic and should be avoided. They don’t reflect the complexities of communities, and they are often only part of the full story. We have a nasty habit of celebrating the individual, but blaming the collective. But things are rarely that simple. There are many shades of grey, and tarring a collective with the same brush only divides us, when in fact as Jews we have far more in common than what differentiates us.
A leading Rabbi summed it up very well: “One of the factors that contributed to this culture has been the tendency to obfuscate the issue of child sexual abuse by diverting attention to matters that are in fact unrelated to the core issue”. It’s not about making broad generalisations about Chabad, Orthodoxy, or Jews. It’s not about some of the other bitter conflicts raging within our community. It’s about uniting to protect our greatest asset – our children.
This article was first published in the 27 Feb 2015 edition of the Melbourne Jewish Report and the Sydney Jewish Report.
For more of David’s writing about this topic, see here.