No More Silence

by Manny Waks and Amelia Frid

There is no more accurate litmus test of a functional society’s health than the way it treats its children. Evidence of the erosion of institutional moral integrity by the incidence and concealment of child sexual abuse is now well established. Child sexual abuse is endemic within the broader Australian community. According to the Centre Against Sexual Abuse, one in three girls and one in six boys under the age of 16 experience sexual abuse, though perhaps only 10% of these victims inform the police. In fact, it takes (on average) 25 years for victims to report the abuse, with male victims often taking longer. Unfortunately the Jewish community is not immune to this scourge, and there is no reason to believe these figures would not be replicated within the Jewish community.

The experience of negative after-effects can seem like a life-sentence for childhood survivors of sexual abuse. According to research released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, this encompasses the quality of intimate relationships, a likelihood of subsequent re-victimisation, the deterioration of physical and psychological health, and struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.

We must address preventative efforts within a policy and legislative framework to enforce the duty of organisational care in relation to young people. From a preventative viewpoint, significant work is also needed at an organisational level to increase awareness of the prevalence of the problem. For those who work with children, and indeed the children and their parents, this strategy is in part an effort at empowerment, but it must be accompanied by legislative and mandatory policy measures to have any realistic chance of success.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse isolate their victims and impose onto them their own sense of shame. The isolation and loneliness experienced by victims is compounded by their subsequent treatment by society: the stigmatisation of victims serves to re-traumatise and further entrap child sexual abuse victims in a never ending cycle of shame, anger, secrecy and withdrawal. Until this cycle is broken by a concerted societal response, the lives of child sexual abuse victims will continue to be haunted by the actions of their abusers.

Certainly individual treatment is available for victims, and appropriate criminal sanctions must be consistently applied to perpetrators, but these are not solutions that address the source of the problem. At an institutional level, we see time and again that the emphasis of organisations has been to maintain the status quo. Often institutions go to extreme lengths to defend their reputations, sometimes reduced to an overt campaign to protect a commercial bottom-line at the clear expense of victims and their families.

For adult survivors of child sexual abuse, the existence of advocacy organisations such as Tzedek is fundamental to both the healing process and institutional change. Organisations will resort to denying, minimising or glossing over victims’ experiences because the alternative is to discredit themselves, and risk the perception of their reputations as being morally bereft.

Too often the grueling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice is overwhelming for sexual abuse survivors who feel paralysed by the shame and guilt of their experiences. Frequently they fear they will not be believed, especially where institutions have expended significant resources in a concerted campaign to (at the least) obfuscate or (at the worst) avoid detection.

This is where independent advocacy and support groups act as a vital lifeline for victims. Not only do organisations such as Tzedek bring to light the prevalence and impact of sexual abuse upon victims, which diminishes the sense of isolation, they de-stigmatise child sexual abuse by bringing it to the public domain.

The establishment of Tzedek in Victoria, and the recent founding of a permanent NSW Tzedek representation, means that not only will more victims be supported in their quest for justice and closure, but also that more organisations will be held to account to maintain their duty of care towards young people with whom they work. We also hope to continue to be a resource for victims and survivors who have suffered child sexual abuse within the family institution.

The manifestation of these principles within the Jewish community will support victims and survivors, make organisations and perpetrators accountable, and ensure a profound message is heard: Enough! No more silence. Victims and survivors will be encouraged, supported and empowered to find their silenced voice.

Manny Waks is Founder and CEO of Tzedek. Amelia Frid is a Tzedek Board member and NSW representative (and a Psychologist).

This article was first published in The Australian Jewish News on 25 April 2013.