By Manny Waks
It has been more than three years since I commenced the work that culminated in my decision to found Tzedek – the support and advocacy group for Jewish victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. After just stepping down from my role as Tzedek CEO last week, it is an opportune time to reflect on where we are now at as a community on this issue, and what has happened in the last three years since I commenced this ongoing public campaign.
When setting out on this journey, some of my key aims were to: raise awareness and educate the community through sharing my story and highlighting the reality of many other victims/survivors and their families; obtain justice for at least some of the many victims/survivors and their families; and advocate for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to examine what has transpired within the Jewish community and in particular, at Yeshivah.
I am proud and pleased to have achieved these aims. Establishing and securing long-term funding for Tzedek was instrumental in implementing much of my work. Over the last three years I have dedicated myself to advocate for justice and the rights of victims/survivors and presented widely, nationally and internationally, raising awareness, training and providing education on a range of issues specific to Jewish communities in relation to child sexual abuse. This included holding numerous workshops and publishing various resources, including the recent world-first Male Mikveh Guidelines.
There is no doubt that significant progress has been achieved. Numerous court cases which have led to convictions and incarcerations have taken place both in Melbourne and Sydney. There are still a number of ongoing investigations into various allegations within several institutions within our community. Importantly, the current Royal Commission is ongoing, with the much-anticipated public hearing into Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre (and possibly Sydney’s Yeshiva Centre) expected to take place early next year, something for which I publicly advocated. In addition, organisations are ensuring they have appropriate policies and procedures in place – both to address past abuses and for prevention (or at least risk mitigation).
I have witnessed over these three years the start of a cultural shift. A heightened awareness around the issue of child sexual abuse is evident. In most segments of our community, there is now an open conversation about this issue. An increasing number of parents have become proactive by seeking education and making an active effort to ensure their child’s body safety. Importantly, parents increasingly engage with the institutions they entrust with the safety and welfare of their children to ensure that this issue is addressed adequately. Indeed, as parents and community members we need to actively ensure that the institutions’ policies and procedures are respected and implemented. There is now more knowledge about the incidence of child sexual abuse, as well as its impact. Statistics show that 1 in 5 children experience this form of abuse before they turn 18, and the impact, as we know, is broad and profound.
For several reasons a great deal of emphasis is placed on institutional abuse, however, it is crucial that parents are aware that child sexual abuse most commonly occurs within families, and ensure they are adequately educated on how to also mitigate the risk of familial abuse occurring.
Notwithstanding the progress made, it is clear that we still have a very long way to go. Sadly, despite what we now know, there are institutions that still mishandle reports of alleged abuse. Even when appropriate policies and procedures are in place, this does not always ensure that these matters are addressed appropriately.
Moreover, most of the communal peak bodies have responded to this issue in a weak manner. Certain segments of the Orthodox Rabbinate continue to hinder further progress.
Rarely do we embrace change. Often it stokes fear and resistance. The broader Jewish community has supported this change. Hopefully those on the margins will soon come on board too. We do not need to be ashamed that we are fallible; that we are like every other community. We must fully acknowledge and address the past in order for us to move forward constructively. We owe it to the many victims/survivors and their families. We owe it to ourselves.
I am humbled by and grateful for the incredible trust and support of so many within our community, especially victims/survivors and their families, and the many generous volunteers and donors.
I look forward to observing the ongoing progress within our community, and to continuing my advocacy role in this area through my future endeavours.
Manny Waks is the founder of Tzedek and a public advocate for victims/survivors of child sexual abuse.
This opinion piece was originally published in the 5 December 2014 print edition of the Australian Jewish News.