Time to establish communal principles on dealing with child abuse

A new body is required to make sure Jewish organisations deal with the problem in an accountable, professional and sympathetic way

June 04, 2020 10:26

The Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse has recently heard evidence about child protection in religious organisations and settings, including in our own community. 

It covers training and understanding of abuse, policies and procedures, vetting, barring and regulated activity, arrangements to respond to allegations including pastoral support, and internal procedures for oversight — and as such touches on the responsibilities of a large swathe of our community institutions.

The inquiry has received relatively little publicity. However, it is worth noting that Migdal Emunah (the leading organisation in our community giving support to victims), Kol V’Oz (on Israeli organisation founded by a survivor of sexual abuse in Australia), the United Synagogue, the Union of Hebrew Congregations, Shema Koli (a helpline endorsed by the Federation of Synagogues, Gateshead, and similarly Orthodox organisations), Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism are all - separately - represented. If you belong to those organisations, some of your money is going there.

The inquiry has so far spent 11 days hearing evidence and there are five more to come. All the evidence is public, although redactions are made to protect individuals who require protection. (You can read it for yourself at

Given the scope of the inquiry, and the many aspects of it that affect the Jewish community, it is plainly impossible to comb through all the details in a short article. 

That is particularly so given some participants claim that abuse is a lesser problem for them. The accuracy of that proposition cannot be determined here.

I want to focus on an overall picture conveyed by the evidence and make some suggestions for how we might, as a community, go forward. 

I am anxious we should formulate a communal response before the inquiry reports. If anyone is doing that, and they may be, it has not percolated to Leeds, where I live. It seems to me right that we should do so. 

I prosecute abuse cases, defend abuse cases and try abuse cases as a judge when I sit part-time. It is quite impossible to think of the experiences of the victims — and of accused people who are acquitted — without feeling desperately sorry for anyone touched by such behaviour and such allegations. It is our responsibility; we should not shirk it.

What the evidence to the inquiry shows is how much of that awful experience is down not to the abuse — which cannot always initially be prevented — but to the reaction. 

We may not be able to prevent abuse (although there is a great deal more we could do), but we can minimise that damage. 

Children who cannot find the words, who are disbelieved, who are embarrassed about saying anything, who are frightened, who are not supported — our children — experience something that could stop but does not. 

Adults who make disclosure in adulthood face the pressure of disbelief, tittle-tattle, accusations of “bringing it up now”, the implicit suggestion that not saying something at the time meant they in some way “consented”. All of that encourages and permits abuse — if we do not make it stop we are culpable in allowing it to flourish.

We can do something about that. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches us, we do not have to complete the task but we are not free to ignore it. The overall statistics indicate that 7.5 per cent of adults have experienced sexual abuse as children — 3.1 million people. In Jewish terms, assuming the percentage to be the same, around 16,500 adult Jews have been abused. You will know one of them, if you are not yourself one of them. 

Of course, a number of those cases will be of children abused outside a communal setting but most abuse happens at home or among family.

How do we deal with that very large number of people — each one representing their own appalling experience, each one taking that experience forward into their families and friends? The evidence suggests not terribly well. 

Our communal organisations do not collect data or conduct research into abuse. We rarely make it someone’s job to be responsible for such allegations. No one, including the government, compiles statistics into the prevalence of sexual offending in religious settings.

There are, perhaps, three different difficulties our children and their families face.

First, when victims of any age come forward, they do not simply face the desire of perpetrators to cover up their abuse but — as concerningly perhaps — the power of inertia when trying to achieve a resolution. Our communities are deferential; to men over women, to rabbis and teachers over lay people, to organisations over individuals, to leaders over those they lead. We are embarrassed by bad news stories. We fear for our collective safety as the actions of some are stereotyped as the behaviour of a religion. Because of all of that we can prefer denial and disbelief to action.

That is pernicious in its result. It means that even ‘safeguarding’ policies — looking beautiful in the manual and waved about when your money is being asked for by way of charitable support — give only an appearance of compliance. In reality, such policies can act as a trap (specifically prohibited in halachah). Policies require listening and belief. Or they are ineffective.

Secondly, there are factors — not inertia — which militate against reporting abuse or dealing with it properly. Some of us face a dilemma between teaching children about sex and maintaining an ignorance of what is and is not acceptable. Some of us consider that secular authority cannot or should not be trusted with such allegations — and perhaps there is a degree of insensitivity to our beliefs and traditions that feeds into that. Some of us succumb to the temptation apparent in any organisation under pressure to “circle the wagons”, to “sort it out ourselves”, to keep it secret.

And thirdly, linked to that, some of us consider abuse so shameful, or so difficult, that it is better not to disclose it. Silence can be preferable to ostracism or even to gossip. 

In the same way, religious rulings — particularly regarding tale-bearing and informing — can be utilised deliberately, or unconsciously, to prevent reporting. So, too, can ties of friendship or family – we are a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s first cousin. It is difficult to report abuse when one knows the innocent family members who might be hurt by the report. Better to sort it out informally, goes the thought.

What then, might we do? We cannot be the police. We cannot run some sort of alternative criminal process. Those who are the victims of crime must be permitted to make a criminal complaint. But the initial stages of any complaint and all the cases in which there is no criminal complaint or no criminal proceedings, are our responsibility. 

We cannot adjudicate the truth of them. We cannot assume that if the police do not investigate there is no valid complaint. That is not reality. But we can and I suggest we must protect the children and adults who make them. I propose that all Jewish organisations and communities adopt some principles in order to do so. I have set these principles out below.

I propose that those who lead our communal organisations and our communities need to sign up to these principles before being permitted to take office.

I propose that we end the situation where we leave it to the victims to drive the conversation and any action we take. The unfairness of that is quite breathtaking: in order to end other people’s suffering, our inaction compels those who have already suffered to constantly relive the experience.

The principles I propose are not prescriptive: they are principles. 

We have to acknowledge that the communities and organisations which make up the Jewish population are different. We have to understand that one size does not fit all. Different organisations will implement the principles differently. It is sensible to trust people to do the right thing.

At the same time, there must be some accountability. I propose we set up a communal body to monitor and educate organisations and communities, made up of professional and lay people in good standing from across the religious and educational spectrum and that the education and monitoring is done by people in sympathy with the religious and educational outlook of each organisation.

I propose that monitoring reports are first shared with the governing body of that community or organisation and then, if there is concern which is not immediately addressed, with the police and social services.

Plainly, some communities and organisations will refuse to adopt the principles or act on recommendations made. I therefore propose that we — and this may be a task for the Board of Deputies or the monitoring body — keep a list of all organisations and communities who do not and provide that list to both the police and the Charities Commission. 

Any organisation that does not take active steps to protect children should be unable to keep that a secret. 

Nor should it be in receipt of charitable status or the public money that comes with it via Gift Aid.

The principles I suggest are modelled on the Nolan Principles, which have governed public life in this country for over 20 years. 

I am not daft enough to suggest they are perfect. They are, I think, a reasonable basis for the urgent discussion we need to have. 
1. Interests of children. These are paramount. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them should act solely in the interest of any child who makes a disclosure of concerning behaviour or abuse, regardless of the time that may have elapsed since the behaviour itself took place. 
2. Integrity. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to adults who might try inappropriately to influence them, including by suggesting that such people can determine how they should exercise their judgement in the interests of children or adults making a complaint. They must declare and resolve any relationship or interests that might give rise to any such obligation. 
3. Objectivity. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them must act and take decisions impartially and in the interest of the child or adult making the complaint, without discrimination or bias. 
4. Accountability. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them are accountable to their membership, the appropriate monitoring bodies, the police and the Charities Commission for their actions and decisions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this. 
5. Openness. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from their membership, the monitoring body, the police or the Charities Commission unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so. 
6. Honesty. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them should be truthful. 
7. Leadership. Communities, organisations and individuals elected or employed to lead them should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. By signing up to these principles they agree that, if they do not, they are unfit for office. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to implement them. 

In order to do so they must ensure there is a policy in place that: 
a. Protects children in their organisation, or who come into contact with its activities, or who are reasonably affected by its activities, from abuse. 
b. Makes reporting easy and neutral, including by appointing an individual to whom complaints should be made. 
c. Includes a framework for educating children themselves about what abuse might be, and how to report it. 
d. Prevents those who are not the individual to whom complaints are made from becoming aware of the fact of the complaint or its detail, save as is necessary to permit them to do their own jobs. 
e. Ensures children or adults who have made a complaint, and their families, are supported and permitted privacy. 

Simon Myerson QC is a Leeds-based barrister

June 04, 2020 10:26

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