By Dr Jim Salinger – New Zealand Vice President, B’nai B’rith New Zealand

The Australian royal commission into the institutional responses to child sexual abuse has handed down its final report on Friday 15 December. After five years, 444 days of public hearings and 8013 private sessions, the commission delivered its 17-volume final report.  The very significant finding was the highest proportion of abuse was in Catholic religious institutions. This Australian report is of ground-breaking significance and, given the level of child sexual abuse in New Zealand, a similar enquiry should be carried out here.

The commission found child sexual abuse occurred in a broad range of institutional contexts, including schools, sporting and dance clubs, defence training establishments and out-of home care services. It recommended laws requiring mandatory reporting of abuse to child protection authorities be extended to religious ministers, out-of-home care workers, childcare workers, registered psychologists and school counsellors, bringing them into line with police, doctors, nurses and teachers.

Religious institutions emerged large and “the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions”. This was followed by the Anglican Church then Salvation Army.  The Catholic representation is about three times the proportion of Catholics in Australia. However, the Jewish Community in Australia is not at all complacent as perpetrators were also found within the Yeshivas and in an ultra-Orthodox girl’s school in Melbourne. Jewish numbers were in proportion to the number of Jews reported in the Australian Jewish population from census data (2016).

The Royal Commision’s case studies examined the responses of two Jewish institutions in the Chabad- Lubavitch movement to allegations of child sexual abuse: the Yeshiva Centre and Yeshiva College in Bondi, New South Wales (Yeshiva Bondi) and the Yeshivah Centre and Yeshivah College in Melbourne, Victoria (Yeshivah Melbourne). They interviewed 15 survivors, all male, who told them about sexual abuse by males, and about sexual abuse by adult perpetrators. The average age of victims at the time of first abuse was 11 and a quarter years. Most of the perpetrators were teachers, and some Rabbis.

In the cases examined, the institutional responses to survivors of child sexual abuse who reported the abuse years after it occurred were dismal. Rather than supporting survivors or assisting them through the process of reporting allegations to police and during and after criminal proceedings, Yeshivas’ community leaders made efforts to silence survivors and to condemn those who would not be silent. Members of the relevant communities shunned survivors and their families, which added to their suffering and may also have deterred other survivors from coming forward.

Until at least 2007, the Yeshivas did not have adequate policies, procedures or practices for responding to complaints of child sexual abuse.  In each community, the head rabbi was considered to be the spiritual head of the community. However, there was no overarching external rabbinical authority to which rabbis could be held accountable. A reverence for rabbinical leaders and a lack of oversight contributed to an absence of scrutiny of the rabbis’ responses to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Perhaps more disgraceful was the behaviour of the Principal of an ultra-Orthodox Melbourne girl’s school, reported in The Age of 16 December 2017.

Malka Leifer, was the former principal in an ultra-Orthodox school for girls in Melbourne,who fled the country to Israel after allegedly sexually abusing her students. The Adass community allegedly paid for Leifer and her family to flee Australia back to Israel. She is accused of 74 child sex charges by the Victorian police. The extradition order is to be reviewed in Israel next month (January 2018). This has had a devastating effect on the Victorian Jewish community.

The commission found that senior leaders in the Yeshivas did not take action to dispel concern, controversy and confusion among the community over the application of the concepts of loshon horo (unlawful gossip) and mesirah (which prohibits a Jew from informing on another Jew or handing them over to a civil authority) to the reporting of child sexual abuse to civil authorities.

During the institutional review hearing, witnesses from Jewish representative bodies and the Yeshivas unanimously confirmed that the concepts of loshon horo and mesirah have no application in the case of child sexual abuse.  Changes have been made so that now Yeshivas must comply with Australian Law, with replacement of rabbis and school boards.

Given New Zealand’s high rate of child sexual abuse, not necessarily in the Jewish community, New Zealand needs to follow Australia’s comprehensive example. An international survey found that one in four New Zealand girls is sexually abused before the age of 15, the highest rate of any country examined. Nearly 3000 women were questioned about unwanted sexual contact before they were 15. A national campaigner on male sexual abuse believes as many as one in three men have been sexually abused in childhood. Findings from New Zealand’s Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) seem to support this claim, where in the Final Report of the CLAS it is stated: “As many boys as girls were sexually abused. About 57% of the men we saw had been sexually abused and 57% of the women.” 

A Royal Commission or similar inquiry producing hard hitting recommendations is required in this country. This is something New Zealand is talking about right now,” according to the Minister for Children Tracey Martin.  Action is required now to protect those most vulnerable in our society, as Australia has done