I helped set up Nahamu, a Jewish human rights lobby group to raise awareness of the misdeeds of the charedi community. One of the wrongdoings we lobby for is the failure to report abuse, including child sexual abuse, to the police. The day after the Chaim Walder saga, I had hoped that the tide would turn and it would be realized that the only way to keep children safe would be to ensure that all incidents were reported (in a timely manner) to the police, with community support for victims and their families. So I was alarmed to read Eli Spitzer’s book Blog where he instead advocates a two-pronged approach; for schools to teach children about predators and for abuse to be reported to a Beis Din. (On a similar basis to the Tzefat Beit Din who took testimony from Walder’s victims, so that if they find out the abuse happened, then they can warn the community about the predator.)
Considering Eli’s position as a school principal, I find his position both dangerous and naïve. Similarly, a recent email sent by ChinuchUK focuses on providing important proof good practice (i.e. compliance and how to pass an Ofsted report) rather than on implementing good practice in line with the government guidelines needed to create safer schools.
Deal with the second part of Eli first.
The only reason the Tzefat Beit Din was able to conclude that Chaim Walder was a long-term abuser was because so many victims came forward, reporting a consistent pattern over many years. Moreover, by that time, many victims had already spoken to Ha’aretz, which had published a well-documented presentation, without which many victims would not have been able to come forward. Another problem with having a Beis Din investigate abuse includes the fact that Dayanim simply do not have the skills or knowledge of all the different professionals involved in a criminal proceeding; police, doctors, judge, jury, psychologist, therapist, social workers, ISVAs (Independent Sexual Violence Advisors) and others. Another concern, when (unlike the Chaim Walder incident) the allegation is not in the public domain, is that the Beis Din might have a vested interest in not believing the victims (often women and children , i.e. not halachic witnesses), so let the accused (often an adult male) continue in his current role and moleste more children. Even if the Beis Din concludes that there has been abuse, it has no way of punishing a perpetrator (unlike a criminal court which can imprison someone who commits a crime). Additionally, their mandate to publicize any abuse they uncover may not be international, so the perpetrator could continue to play a similar role in a school in an overseas community.
In most cases, there aren’t dozens of victims lining up to report similar offences. With just one incident, the Beis Din is likely to dismiss the case due to lack of evidence. Which brings me to my concern with its second component, the education of children. The problem (see Statement by Migdal Emuna on IICSA p56) with a workshop at school telling children that “their private parts are private – say no – tell an adultis that the responsibility to protect children has been placed by adults on the children themselves. This may help adults feel better, but self-protection becomes an additional burden for affected children. It’s a big problem in a community that doesn’t encourage reporting abuse to the police and hasn’t taken other steps to keep its children safe. With a high likelihood of predators circulating in the charedi community due to lack of police reporting, many charedi children will encounter a predator. This allows children to feel an extra layer of shame and blame the victim if they fail to say no or tell an adult in time.
Context is everything. Of course, in line with recent government guidelines”Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021“parents should have conversation with their children from early childhood on not keeping secrets, encouraging transparency and around bodily autonomy.
However, for good reason, this is no longer best practice for prevention education (known as ‘foreign danger) to be dispensed in schools. Jewish schools need to find better ways to keep their students safe; and that includes reporting of all incidents to the police. We await the conclusions of IICSA, and we hope there will be a mandatory police report for all teachers in all schools.
Eve Sacks is co-founder of Nahamu, a think tank lobbying against wrongdoing in the Charedi community, and trustee of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK.