A New Global Jewish Taskforce to Combat Child Sexual Abuse
Recently I attended the first International Congress for Child Protection Organisations in Jewish Communities [the Congress] that was held at the Haruv Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Congress was sponsored by Haruv and Magen, an Israeli child protection organisation in Beit Shemesh.
I believe that in order to really understand the problems in Melbourne we need to understand the overall problem and culture underpinning the way in which Ultra Orthodox communities deal with child sexual abuse.
However it is important to note that here is one big difference between Melbourne and most other Jewish communities in how child sexual abuse is dealt with. In most countries community services for Ultra Orthodox steams of Judaism are usually delivered separately, because the Ultra Orthodox way of life and customs are so different to less religious streams of Judaism. That is not the case in Melbourne.
In Melbourne child protection is lead by the Chabad dominated volunteer organization The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault (The Taskforce). Although the vast majority of the Melbourne Jewish community are not Ultra Orthodox and don’t relate to or even understand the Chabad way of life, The Taskforce assert to be delivering a sensitive and unified response to child sexual abuse that covers all steams of Judaism. Thus the way in which all our children are protected is informed by Ultra orthodox “experts” such as USA based psychologist Dr David Pelcovitz and Israeli based Debbie Gross who works with the Ultra Orthoodox in family violence.
The Congress reached the conclusion that much reform was still needed to confront the challenges of child sexual abuse in Ultra Orthodox communities including: undue persuasion by members of the community, institutional cover ups, Inappropriate stigma, humiliation and fear has prevented many victims of sexual abuse from being forthcoming and public regarding the occurrence of abuse suffered by them. This failure of public awareness has resulted in immeasurable harm perpetrated on children and their families, who face potential further victimization by inaction or negative actions undertaken.
In Melbourne we have been reassured that the historical problems of child sexual abuse have been resolved. Many believe that children of Yeshivah College are safe now because policies and procedures have been implemented, children have been taught to protect themselves, parents have been taught how to talk to their children about abuse and assurances have been made that abuse occurring in institutions will be reported to authorities.
I believe that there needs to be a great deal of reform before we can sit back.
Last year the Herald Sun reported that USA psychology professor, Dr Pelcovitz trained Rabbis to respond to child sexual abuse. According to Rabbi Kluwgant president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV): “there was a misconception that rabbis were saying to people that they mustn’t report to the police. If somebody has information regarding sexual abuse, they must report it to police – that goes without question.”
The act of reporting to police is far from resolved internationally. Not reporting a fellow Jew has been a long standing unwritten rule and culturally accepted norm in Ultra Orthodox communities. Another feature of Ultra Orthodox communities is the central role of the Rabbi in everyday life. In many communities Ultra-Orthodox leaders instruct their congregants not to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the police unless a rabbi first determines that the suspicions are credible.
There are many valid reasons why Rabbis should not be involvedin the decision to report to authorities. The UK Jewish News offers a very good reason: “Sometimes religion simply cannot provide all the answers, so we must turn instead to secular authorities. Sexual abuse is one such time.”
Very recently The UK Jewish News reported Child sex abuse victim claims – US rabbi advised: ‘Don’t go to police.’ The case of Yehudis Goldsobel is well known internationally. Her allegations lead to the conviction and imprisonment of Mendel Levy. Yet Yehudis and her family were shunned by their community. Yehudis recently alleged that a United Synagogue rabbi advised her not to go to the police, despite an “extremely clear” policy on the issue.
The Age recently reported that Police are investigating how a confidential complaint about sex abuse cover-ups at a prominent Melbourne Jewish college was obtained by senior figures associated with the school, resulting in the exposure of the author’s identity. “The complainant is understood to have been subjected to harassment within the tight-knit St Kilda community ever since his identity was revealed. In some ultra-orthodox communities reporting a fellow Jew to police or secular authorities is discouraged.”
Given Rabbi Kluwgant’s assertions in the Herald Sun that: “…..If somebody has information regarding sexual abuse, they must report it to police – that goes without question.” If it is in fact true that a community member has been subject to harassment for reporting, what is the Rabbi of the shule doing in relation to this ongoing problem of harassment? What is the RCV doing? Should Rabbi Kluwgant comment given the public statements he has made?
Very recently another very disturbing episode has been highlighted in the Jewish media worldwide. It involves the case of Evan Zuader a now convicted sex offender and support for him by leaders. This time the headline read:
Pelcovitz and Leading Orthodox Rabbis Line Up Behind Sex Offender Evan Zauder.
Zauder, was a teacher at New York’s Yeshivat Noam, and worked in other Ultra Orthodox organisations ,where he was constantly around young people and children. Everyone liked him. No one suspected that he collected child pornography and arranged trysts with underage boys on the Internet—and more. Zauder faced spending many years in jail.
David Cheifetz is a victim of abuse. He recently wrote about the things he discovered in the public court documents concerning Evan Zauder’s sentencing, including a number of character references written by local rabbis and community leaders on Zauder’s behalf.
What he found particularly hurtful were two letters that spoke of Zauder in glowing terms, as if what he did was a momentary aberration or something that can be mediated, much as an alcoholic or drug addict can be treated.
“Until that time, one must question the underlying judgment and integrity of the individuals who would advocate for such abusers, and the institutions that they represent. Dr David Pelcovitz ‘s letter of recommendation was one of the letters that so horrified Chiefetz.
Benny Forer is a a district attorney in Los Angeles as well as a qualified but not practising Orthodox Rabbi. He too was outraged about the contents of Pelcovitzs’ letter of recommendation.
Forer calls into question Pelcovitz’s medical opinion as either grossly negligent or blatantly wrong because the statements in his letter were proven entirely wrong. Forer was not able to understand how “a self-proclaimed advocate and expert for child sexual abuse” could ‘assist’ victims by not only failing to hold the predator responsible but helping to minimise the predators’ exposure. Pelcovitz subsequently defended his action by stating that he wrote the letter before the initial bail was granted. He also apologised for hurt caused to victims.
This is not the first time that Dr. Pelcovitz's credibility as a child advocate has been challenged previously. One example is that he is linked to alleged coverups at Ohel (New York) and failure to report child sex abuse as well as other incidents.
I believe that Dr Pelcovitzs’ integrity is a significant issue as he advises Ultra Orthodox communities worldwide. Pelcovitz has also played a significant role in how we protect children in Melbourne. He has come to Australia on several occasions at the request of The Taskforce and the AJN has covered his visits with headlines such as: US sex abuse expert to speak.
According to Rabbi Kluwgant in the herald sun article: “Some victims didn’t want to report incidents to police because they felt ashamed. “If someone discloses to the rabbi this information, apart from telling them to go to the police, what can the rabbi offer to that person? What’s the best way for the rabbi to respond?”
Many questions arise from these statements. Reporting abuse should occur when there is a disclosure of abuse or if there are suspicions that a child is being abused. What does: if somebody has information regarding sexual abuse, they must report it to police mean?”
What does: “some victims don’t want to report incidents to police because they feel ashamed mean?” There is often no choice that Rabbis need to make. Disclosed abuse or suspicions of abuse involving a child’s parents needs to be reported to child protection and/or police so that an investigation is undertaken and a safety program is constructed for the child. If the sexual abuse involves a person outside of the family home the parents will need to be informed immediately. A report is made to the police. A child victim does not have a choice in reporting.
The Taskforce have placed emphasis on the role of Rabbis as central to stopping abuse. So much so that they have placed large advertisements in the AJN listing Rabbis who have attended training. What exactly is the role of Rabbis?
Children do not usually disclose to Rabbis. Someone has to bring an allegation of abuse to the rabbi – children don’t usually bring it themselves. Nor do Rabbis usually form a suspicion that a child is being abused through identifying symptoms simply because they don’t spend enough time with each child in their congregation. Children rely on the adults in the lives to protect them.
That is why adults need education and the confidence to respond to a child. According to Rachel Zimmerman (who runs Project Shield the Ultra-Orthodox response to child sexual abuse in Chicago (20/12/2011) the most important advocates for child sexual abuse are community members. “When someone has been victimized it is very hard to come forward. Most likely when someone comes forward it is not going to be to a professional, therapist, and hotline. Most likely it is going to be to a family member, teacher, a friend or someone close.” “Project Shield helps support the community to support victims.”
Other Jewish child protection organisations have implemented comprehensive community based education based on the belief that community education is the most important response element. This education incorporates how to report to authorities. The Taskforce as well as Rabbi Kluwgant President of the RCV, Rabbi Glasman past president of RCV and Rabbi Goodhardt who has the child abuse and family violence portfolio for the RCV, have strongly rejected telling the community about programs they can access on-line. Despite assertions of Rabbi Glasman that the RCV would provide community education and that they are working with the Australian Childhood Foundation, to provide comprehensive community education I don’t believe that this has yet reached the community.
Most of us fear responding to child sexual abuse –That is one of the reasons why many incidents of abuse go unreported even when a child discloses or a person suspects abuse. (According to Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University, USA: “The problem we have is that most people most of the time won’t report abuse, no matter how clear the evidence is.” “People tell researchers. I don’t report because I’m not quite sure.”
For this to occur, the community need to be involved – and armed with the knowledge and confidence to help a child. I share child protection organisation JustTell’s vision: “a world in which children who are molested immediately turn to a trusted adult figure in their lives and tell them of the abuse. That trusted adult has information to help the child though the next steps so that the abuse is stopped and the abuser is prevented from harming other children.”
In our vision, children do not have to bear the scars of unrevealed and repeated abuse.