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Community leadership bodies slammed at public forum over responses to sexual abuse

Michael Visontay
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Published: 2 September 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Manny Waks said community roof bodies had not delivered on their assurances, and also criticised the Yeshivah Centre over its response to recent cases.

Child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks has accused Jewish community leadership bodies of failing to deliver on guarantees promised in the wake of the royal commission five years ago.

He also criticised the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne over its response to recent cases of “sexualised behaviour” involving young children at the centre.

Waks was speaking at a public event in Melbourne on Tuesday night, attended by the federal member for Macnamara, Josh Burns, and the Victorian member for Caulfield, David Southwick, that discussed the Jewish community’s progress since the royal commission wound up.

Waks said his global advocacy group, VoiCSA, had been dealing with “over a dozen cases” of child sexual abuse involved with the Yeshiva Centre” over the past few months.

David Southwick, left, and Josh Burns, to his right
David Southwick, left, and Josh Burns, to his right

Victoria police told The Jewish Independent they investigated five reports of “sexualised behaviour” involving “a group of children” at the centre. Three of the incidents are alleged to have occurred between May and October 2021. It is believed only five of the total number of cases were reported to police.

The Jewish Independent does not suggest that the alleged offences took place in the school or involved a teacher. 

Waks told the public forum: “I'm not making any allegations that it's a staff member, or volunteers. And I'm also not suggesting that things were swept under the carpet.

“It’s too early to say whether or not things were addressed appropriately by the Centre but its response to our most recent allegations and to our interactions with them has been poor.  It’s as simple as that, and therefore, I am concerned.”

Waks also cast doubt on the seriousness with which the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and state roof bodies treated their responsibilities in ensuring systemic reforms regarding child sexual abuse.

“The Jewish Board of Deputies, for example, and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), gave assurances [in the wake of the commission] that things were not going to be the same as they were,” he told the forum.

Waks was pointed in his criticism of the leadership bodies’ priorities. “The JCCV president and the ECAJ president may have other things important things to attend to and I'm not being critical of them for not necessarily being here.

“But you could only imagine that if we were talking about a communal event about antisemitism and security matters, they would be here front and centre.”

Liana Buchanan speaking at Tuesday night's event
Liana Buchanan speaking at Tuesday night's event

Waks was speaking on a panel at the Caulfield Pavilion that included the Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People in Victoria, Liana Buchanan, and the Divisional Manager for Community Services at Jewish Care Victoria, Marilyn Kraner.

Liana Buchanan echoed Waks’ call about the ongoing nature of child sexual abuse. She said one thing she had learned during her five years in the role as Commissioner for Children was that “abuse of children in our trusted organisations and institutions is not a matter of history. It's not a thing of the past. It's happening today.

Another thing I’ve learned is many, many people still struggle to understand grooming, the patterns of overly personal and intimate behaviour that isn't necessarily obvious as sexual misconduct - LIANA BUCHANAN

“Another thing I’ve learned is many, many people still struggle to understand grooming, the patterns of overly personal and intimate behaviour that isn't necessarily obvious as sexual misconduct.

“When we're overseeing investigations, we often see that organisations really struggle to name that conduct as sexual misconduct, irrespective of what they've found to be proven.”

“We've also seen that some of the myths about child abuse that should have been laid to rest by the royal commission, sadly remain alive and well in the minds of many. Myths about child abuse being rare, myths about children routinely fabricating allegations, myths about children's evidence being inherently less reliable than that of adults. Myths about the fact that only certain kinds of people are predators. We've still got work to do.”

Marilyn Kraner
Marilyn Kraner

Marilyn Kraner reiterated the importance of constant vigilance. “If an organisation feels they've reached a point where it feels perfectly safe, then it's not really looking. You've got to keep looking, there will always be new bits of information.”

She also took up the difficulties in identifying grooming. “[It’s] one of the most insidious behaviours and it's so difficult to really pinpoint what could be grooming. There is a lot of fear and around assumptions that a behaviour may look like it's grooming, when it's not – and vice-versa.

Kraner added that it does not just occur between adult and child. “Grooming can happen within the organisation, between colleagues or with staff. And that's when it becomes the most difficult for organisations to be willing to see what's in front of them.”

If an organisation feels they've reached a point where it feels perfectly safe, then it's not really looking. You've got to keep looking, there will always be new bits of information - MARILYN KRANER

As the event drew to a close, Waks was asked by a member of the audience to compare the response to child sexual abuse in Australia with other countries that VoiCSA monitors and engages with.

From left, David Southwick, Josh Burns, Michael Visontay, Liana Buchanan, Manny Waks, Mindy Jones (CEO of NCJWA) and Marilyn Kraner
From left, David Southwick, Josh Burns, Michael Visontay, Liana Buchanan, Manny Waks, Mindy Jones (CEO of NCJWA) and Marilyn Kraner

“It's clear that we have seen significant progress in every segment of our [Jewish] community, and that's a good reflection of broader society in Australia,” he said. “But in the more Orthodox, religious segments of our community, the progress has been less significant - as is common in broader society - because their starting point was a lot further behind the rest of society.

“Somewhat ironically, after having said what I've said this evening, I actually present Australia [in discussions with other countries] as the best, the ideal country in terms of best practice. We are world leaders in how we address child sexual abuse. So take from that what you will.

Acknowledging the mood of surprise around the room, Waks continued: “Sometimes, I feel a bit embarrassed by criticising what is happening here. But I guess I'm striving for not just a best practice response, I'm striving for a situation where we're preventing child sexual abuse.”

Main photo: From left, Michael Visontay (moderator), Liana Buchanan, Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People in Victoria, Manny Waks, CEO of VoiCSA, and Marilyn Kraner, Divisional Manager for Community Services at Jewish Care Victoria.

All photos: Gonzalo Villanueva

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.

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