July 29, 2012
WIZO Masada hosted special guest Manny Waks, Jewish community leader and anti-child sexual abuse campaigner within the ultra-Orthodox community, at its monthly meeting.
More than 40 WIZO members and friends heard Waks present a Q&A about his personal experience of sexual abuse within the Yeshivah community, the attempted cover-up and the ongoing challenges he and other victims continue to face.
Highlights of Waks’s presentation focused on the following points:
- While the abuse itself was terrible enough, the ongoing cover-up and intimidation has made the situation much worse.
- In many of the cases the abuse could have been prevented if appropriate action would have been taken earlier on. For example, with at least one of the alleged perpetrators there were sufficient warning signs for action to be taken. Instead, not only was action not taken but the alleged paedophile was given unrestricted access to children.
- Only recently has he reflected on the fact that some of his challenging behaviour in the school around the time of the abuse was probably as a direct result of the abuse itself.
- At the time of the initial abuse by the first perpetrator he confided the abuse to his closest friend at school who soon after betrayed that trust and shared the information with some of his classmates, some of whom later used it for school-yard bullying. Probably as a result of this Manny does not recall sharing this abuse and the subsequent abuse with anyone else until a much later stage.
- The need to go to the media was a last resort— he went to the police in 1996 and on a number of occasions he tried to have Yeshivah deal with it directly. As nothing was achieved, he felt he had no choice but to go to the media. The decision to go to the media was not taken lightly and was implemented after years of consideration and discussion with family and friends. He feels vindicated by the fact that so much has been achieved over the past year, which he attributes mainly to the ongoing public campaign.
- The reasons The Age was chosen to break his story are twofold—firstly, because Jewel Topsfield (their Education Editor) had a few weeks earlier broke the story that another alleged paedophile within the Yeshivah community was being extradited from the US and secondly, he felt comfortable with Jewel as a journalist. He dismissed unsubstantiated accusations that The Age is antisemitic as being irrelevant—they are a major credible publication in Victoria.
- He noted the challenges of being a part of a relatively small community. For example, a senior executive member of one of the community’s roof bodies is currently dating one of the alleged perpetrators in his case. This obviously presents a major challenge to victims and their families (and probably the entire community).
- While he commended some of the great work The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence has undertaken in this area, much of this good work has been undone by a number of serious errors of judgment, namely that:
- on numerous occasions they have acted as Yeshivah apologists by ignoring what occurred all those years ago and merely emphasising the apparently great processes that Yeshivah currently has in place to deal with such cases now.
- one of their main public representatives is in a serious conflict of interest by having family members and friends on the Yeshivah Executive and being aware of the ongoing abuse in Yeshivah, and remaining silent both at the time and now despite being personally asked by Manny to share anything they know with the police; and
- they have not reached out to any of the victims.
- Going public with his story was initially cathartic and in some instances continues to be so. However, at times it is overwhelming but the strength to continue with his public campaign is derived from the many supporters from Australia and globally, especially from some of the victims.
- He feels that there is a concern that if the public campaign stops a lot of the momentum will be lost. There are strong forces who would do anything to have this matter swept under the carpet and by maintaining this public campaign it ensures that this scandal will be dealt with appropriately.
- He mentioned the major harassment and intimidation he and his family have been subjected to—mainly from people associated with the Yeshivah community.
- In response to whether and why his parents left children at the school after being made aware of the abuse (in 1996), Manny noted a number of the challenges facing members of ultra-Orthodox communities in this regard, including:
- when parents send their children to a school they expect them to be educated in a safe and secure environment—i.e. the onus should be on the school and not on the parents;
- if children were indeed withdrawn, the entire community would become aware of the reasons for the withdrawal, which would both expose the victim at possibly a very vulnerable stage and probably cause the family to be ostracised due partly to the stigmas attached to such crimes (besides from the obvious consequences of this, it would also seriously impact the family in so many ways e.g. marrying off the children); and
- at that time there were no other alternatives for Yeshivah families in terms of educating their children.
- He noted that what we are currently seeing is only the tip of the iceberg—there are a number of perpetrators still out there, some of whom are known to many within the Yeshivah community (and some of whom are being investigated by police) and there are many, many more victims out there (including some who currently would be suffering immensely).
- Achieving justice is currently the key for the victims and their families. Also, ongoing education and awareness is essential to protect our children.
WIZO President Shirley Urban commented “It was an exceptionally interesting meeting opportunity to educate our members and inform them what is occurring in the Jewish and wider community”.
Manny Waks commented: “It was a great opportunity to share with active members of the Jewish community—specifically through WIZO—some of my experiences of abuse in order to raise awareness of this scourge within our community. It is important that the entire community takes an uncompromising stand on this issue and both provides support to the many victims out there and takes action to ensure our children are protected.”