VoiCSA (formally Kol v'Oz) Opening Statement - UK Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse
Honza Cervenka, Associate, AO Advocates
On behalf of Kol v'Oz and its CEO Manny Waks
16 March 2020
Good afternoon, Chair and panel
My name is Honza Cervenka, I am an Associate at AO Advocates and appear on behalf of Kol v’Oz and its Chief Executive Officer, Mr Manny Waks, a core participant in this Inquiry. To my left are Julie Taberer and Shannon Moore, my colleagues at AO Advocates.
My client is a survivor of child sexual abuse at a Chabad Yeshivah centre in Melbourne, Australia. When Mr Waks went public about the sexual abuse he had suffered, he and his ultra-Orthodox Jewish family were shunned and intimidated by their community; they were ultimately driven out of Australia and relocated to Israel. There, my client founded Kol v’Oz, an organisation whose mission is to combat child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community by educating all stakeholders, including local congregations and their leaders, about its pervasive and cancerous nature. Kol v’Oz is the only Jewish organisation that addresses child sexual abuse in the Jewish community worldwide, irrespective of geography or demography—as such, my client is able to draw on the lessons learnt elsewhere, and contextualise local efforts.
Although Mr Waks is now primarily based in Israel, his work takes him to Jewish communities across the world, including the United States, Europe, South America and indeed Australia, where he was one of the driving forces behind the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He is no stranger to the Jewish community in the UK, having held multiple public events here, worked with local victims and survivors, and collaborated with similar UK organisations, such as Migdal Emunah. In fact, Mr Waks wrote to the Inquiry in 2016, encouraging it to launch an investigation into the UK Jewish community.
The Inquiry will have to consider a wide spectrum of different strands of Judaism in the coming days. They each have their own stance on many of the issues relevant to tackling child sexual abuse, but we submit none of them have the ability or willingness to competently, robustly and independently process allegations of child sexual abuse, provide specialised support to those impacted by the abuse or prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place.
Indeed, the witness statements submitted on behalf of the Jewish organisations speak of very few, if any, cases of child sexual abuse reported to them. How can one square the witness statement on behalf of the Shema Koli helpline, which states that they have fielded some 800 calls regarding child sexual abuse in the past seven years, with, for example, the witness statement on behalf of the S&P Sephardi Community, saying that they have had no “reported or recorded” allegations of child sexual abuse in the past 10 years? Or the identical assertion on behalf of the Interlink Foundation? Calls to Shema Koli are anonymous and so they cannot be tracked to a specific community, but the lack of corresponding data from the Jewish organisations is highly alarming.
The Inquiry may wish to consider whether Jewish organisations in fact want to know of allegations of child sexual abuse within their communities. In my client’s view, they often do not, preferring to be seen as doing the right thing instead of actually doing it. We ask the Inquiry to look beyond the published policies, DBS checks and appointments of safeguarding officers and examine the reality that victims of child sexual abuse face in their community.
That reality seems laced with a heavy dose of naivety. Many in the Jewish community believe that Rabbis can do no wrong or that the presence of multiple adults at a youth retreat, in barmitzvah classes or mikvaot ritual baths act as effective deterrents against child sexual abuse. We submit that evidence disproves these beliefs and research shows that child sexual abuse often occurs exactly in those presumably safe and trusted environments.
We broadly agree with Shema Koli that child sexual abuse often goes unreported for the reasons listed in paragraph 29 of their witness statement. Many of the victims who do decide to speak up first approach their Rabbi, either out of custom or because of Mesirah, a religious law which prohibits informing external authorities about another member of the community.
Not every Rabbi will invoke Mesirah quite so dogmatically as the rabbi in Channel 4’s documentary, Britain’s Hidden Child Abuse, but the truth remains that Rabbis enjoy tremendous authority and limited oversight in Jewish communities. In some strands, including every ultra- Orthodox one, all matters of life’s minutiae are consulted with the rabbis. Many come to them for advice as victims or when they learn, suspect or worry that child sexual abuse is taking place. This, coupled with the common practice within many Orthodox Jewish communities to avoid or limit record-keeping, is highly problematic and enables the all-too-predictable practice of moving perpetrators from one assignment to another, abusing more and more children along the way.
Unfortunately, many victims of child sexual abuse who have come forward publicly, like my client, have found the naivety quickly evolved into anger because they are seen as stoking anti-Semitism or speaking ill of another member of the community in violation of Mesirah and lashon hara. The fear of re-victimisation and stigmatisation is a powerful and dangerous silencer of victims.
And when Jewish leaders do make a stand against child sexual abuse, they often just pay lip service to the cause. As a particularly grave example, Marie van der Zyl, President of the Jewish Board of Deputies, first supported Kol v’Oz and Migdal Emunah in their fight against child sexual abuse in the Jewish community, only to then fail to criticise Chabad UK when it publicly honoured Mendy Levy, a convicted sex offender, because he had donated a Torah scroll. Although the gift was later rejected, it was so only because of the public outcry led by Mr Levy’s courageous victim and my client. By then, all the damage was already done; Mr Levy’s victim felt even more shunned from the community as its leaders and over 1,000 members publicly honoured and praised Mr Levy and joyously danced with him and his new Torah scroll in a celebration which was heard several streets away.
It is for these reasons that my client firmly believes that the full spectrum of Jewish communities in the UK require external intervention to change how they approach allegations of child sexual abuse and protect their children. A new regulatory body must be established and run by the government to put strong child protection policies in place and establish robust standards for processing of child sexual abuse complaints. This body should build connections with the community and work with experts, both religious and secular. It should have investigatory and enforcement powers and setup new, clear and mandated reporting routes to the police and local authorities. These routes must bypass the rabbis, whose role has been controversial and conflicted in this context. Too long and too often rabbis have been a part of the problem, not the solution, whether in terms of the abuse itself or its subsequent cover-up because they know the perpetrator, disbelieve the allegation or simply want to avoid a scandal. Their intimidation of victims and their reluctance to intervene when others in the community persecute them, their families and other supporters, must stop.
In Mr Waks’ view, the role of a rabbi is to provide spiritual, religious and emotional support and guidance, not legal advice. If they learn or suspect child sexual abuse is taking place, rabbis must tell and encourage their congregants to go directly to the police. No exceptions.
The regulatory approach will no doubt have to be sensitive, but it will also have to be bold and daring to effectively protect children and give past victims of child sexual abuse some sense of justice and healing. We simply cannot afford to have the status quo continue. There must no longer be impunity for perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Instead, victims, recent and historic, must feel empowered and supported to come forward so that their allegations can be properly investigated. Otherwise the community won’t heal, won’t learn and won’t protect its most vulnerable members.