Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Hold off on the Gold Stars

Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM
On Tuesday 16 May, Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM, Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse addressed the National Council of Churches  He  spoke  to much of the work of the Royal Commission to date.  
In this post I am going to reference extensively from his speech, (which can be found in full at Safe as Churches ).  His thoughts are well worth ownership by every member of the community - leaders and those with expectations of their leaders.  
Direct extracts will be found italicised in quotation marks.

My own question - after two years in the spotlight - Is the community listening?  Learning? Is change happening? Are children in institutions likely to be safe going forward?
Are victims being nurtured, supported and receiving the long overdue respect, acknowledgement and redress they are due?

Justice McClellan noted from the Royal Commission Redress Report -
'We said appropriate redress should include three elements:
  1. A direct personal response by the institution, including an apology, an opportunity for the survivor to meet with a senior representative of the institution and an assurance as to the steps the institution has taken, or will take, to protect against further abuse.
  2. Access to therapeutic counselling and psychological care as needed throughout a survivor’s life.
  3. Modest monetary payments as a tangible means of recognising the wrong survivors have suffered.'
From the conversations I am having with survivors from a number of institutions in the Jewish community, these elements are still not being met.

'We recommended a set of principles by which redress should be funded. Those principles were:
  • The institution in which the abuse is alleged or accepted to have occurred should fund the cost of redress.
  • Where an applicant alleges or is accepted to have experienced abuse in more than one institution, the redress scheme should apportion the cost of funding redress between the relevant institutions.
  • Where the institution in which the abuse is accepted to have occurred no longer exists and the institution was part of a larger group of institutions or where there is a successor to the institution, the group of institutions or the successor institution should fund the cost of redress.
Again,from the conversations I am having with survivors from a number of institutions in the Jewish community, these elements are still not being met.

Child Sexual Abuse in Religious institutions – Private Sessions Information   
'...32 percent of survivors who have attended a private session reported abuse in a government institution.          10 percent of survivors reported abuse in a secular institution. 59 percent reported abuse in a religious institution.'  (my emphasis)

Special Vulnerability   
'...the majority of the allegations we have received have emerged from faith-based institutions. This inevitably raises the question “why”. Why is it that in institutions which proclaim faith in God and embrace the highest ethical and moral principles so many children are abused? Why do some people who proclaim their faith and have accepted a life of religious endeavour breach their obligations to children? Is there something in either the structure, culture, or personal qualities of members of the churches and other religious bodies, whether lay or ordained, that gives them such a prominent place amongst offenders?'

'...The child will always be vulnerable to the abusing adult. Where the adult is perceived by the child to be a manifestation of spiritual good, in some cases especially chosen by God, and able to instruct the child about the mysteries of life, death, belief in God, and good and evil an extra level of vulnerability may be present...'
'...Both physical punishment of the child and alienation from God are threats of which we repeatedly hear. Sometimes the child was told that the abuse afflicted upon them is God’s will...'
'...Remarkably some have been told it is the way God wants them to learn about sex. The calculated exploitation of a child’s innocence is difficult to comprehend. The power afforded to the adult by the institution is corrupted and used to abuse the child...'
'...The special attention which an abusing priest, pastor or religious person may have paid to the abused child is commonly welcomed by the child’s parent. This will also be true of a child’s sporting coach, lay teacher or dance instructor. That attention may engender a sense in the developing child that they are special. When the nurturing of a child’s spiritual development becomes entangled with affection and misplaced adoration of the abuser, both the risk to the child and the impact of the abuse when it occurs increases. The loss of a spiritual life for a survivor is common, although not universal. For many survivors this loss compounds the burdens they must carry for the rest of their lives...'
'...A pubescent or post-pubescent child seeking to understand their own identity and place in the world, including their sexual identity, is vulnerable to the affections and special treatment of the adult leading ultimately to disillusionment and, for many, lifelong destructive consequences....'

Justice McClellan went on to discuss child-safety elements in institutions.  One would imagine that any institution in the community would be well aware of these elements by now and on top of transition to ensure that a child safe environment existed.  
We have found these elements referred to previously in Case Studies and I list them below:
  • Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture
  • Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously
  • Families and communities are informed and involved
  • Equity is promoted and diversity respected
  • People working with children are suitable and supported
  • Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused
  • Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training
  • Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur
  • Implementation of child safe standards is continually reviewed and improved
  • Policies and procedures document how the organisation is child safe.
To me, having read through these elements on many occasions, having worked with organisations and documentation focusing on change, compliance and child-safety it is often the first element that speaks to me, that calls loudest.  
To me, everything must flow from leadership - from the values, voice and role-modelling to an understanding and commitment to the authority and imperative to ensure transition to change across the institution, the internal and external stakeholders and the associated community. 
It is imperative that leaders understand their depth of personal responsibility, commitment and extent of duty required; both philosophically and practically to create an environment where change can and must eventuate.  
This process is not a matter of a point in time; an instigation in policies; a ticking of a box - but a recognition of an ongoing and constant attention to care, meeting benchmarks and growing beyond them.  Far harder to acknowledge, but crucial to undertake.

Without the commitment to ongoing process, internal monitoring and activity, outcomes are not necessarily ideal.
Over the past fortnight there has been much back-slapping across the community as two schools managed the discovery of a teacher since charged with making child pornography.  But a little reflection indicates that process certainly could have been better.  A community should not be too quick to congratulate itself on its presumed successes.
It needs to take the time to consider with objectivity. 
The teacher departed from a school in 2015 and his hard drive was only recently audited.  The Principal of the school from which the teacher departed in 2015 has advised he was aware of the importance of auditing hard drives.  One has to presume this hard drive belonged to the school to enable them to audit it at any time; this being the case - surely if they were on top of child-safety procedures the audit should have happened within 4/6/8 or even 10 weeks of the teacher departing the school?  Instead, the individual concerned has been in another teaching environment for a further extended period.
Pertinent to the same event - both schools involved sent out letters to parents to advise them of the situation.  Only one made any mention of engaging with Victoria Police should there be any concerns, etc.  
If there is one overwhelming lesson everyone should have taken home from Case Study 22 it is that at the slightest concern the place for first response is the police, or encouragement to engage with the police; not the institution.
So lets not be too quick to congratulate ourselves.  
What are we doing?  What call are we making to engage with expertise?  To inform ourselves?  To drive change?   
Are leaders committed to the 10 Child Safety Elements in an ongoing fashion?  Are community members responsible in communicating this expectation to leaders, rather than being complacent?
Let's have an expectation of getting it right; of protecting our  children before we hand out any gold stars.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Safe Spaces

I've been 'encouraged', pushed, prodded and many other terms that probably stop just short of being harassed by various people over the last week.  There is, it appears, a voracious desire for me to write (to have something to read) about Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner and his comments to the Royal Commission.   There is a veritable craving for thoughts on the veracity of his words, opinions on reports of investigations by the Australian Federal Police on the matter and with enormous emphasis, the actions - or lack of them - of the various Yeshivah Boards.
So to all who have 'encouraged', pushed and prodded, (but not yet harassed), my previous post (Complicity) included my thoughts on the importance of timely decision-making by leadership and I'm not going to do a re-visit - my thoughts haven't changed on this at all over the last week.

That being said, when critical issues arise, considered decision-making requires both apt time and deliberation.    Discussions  in many circles currently reverberate with the question at the moment as to whether the presence of Rabbi Groner as a Director on a Yeshivah Board continues to be tenable.  If local conversation is any reflection this is  clearly an issue for many, both internal and external to the Yeshivah community at the moment.  Right now there is a runaway train of gossip, an endless exchange of talk, in the shops, synagogues, schools and streets.  Over Shabbat tables, waiting to collect students from school.  What of Rabbi Groner?  What should the Yeshivah Boards be doing?  What are the Yeshivah boards not doing?  What of Rabbi Groner?

I have my own mental timeline as to when a decision needs to be taken by, what factors might impact on that decision-making and an ideal as to what a preferred decision would look like.  But till the end of that timeline is reached, or till some further action is taken or an  announcement is made, I won't be commenting on the actions of any of the Yeshivah Boards.  

From beneath my governance hat I can only interpret current events at Yeshivah as placing them in severe disruption, a point of crisis.  As such, I support a Board being entitled to a 'Safe Space' to make a crucial decision.  So at this point in time, I won't be commenting further on the actions or non-actions of Yeshivah Boards and Rabbi Groner.

Any Board needs to be able to come together to reach largely consensual conclusions, if not entirely consensual in these situations.  This is not an easy task and particularly so for inexperienced Boards, barely in place for a number of months, with new relationships and dynamics still settling into play - such as they are at Yeshivah.  
Consider a well established symphony.  They benefit from the long-standing experience of  familiarity as musicians. Each develops further through private practise and as a symphony they rehearse together repeatedly to achieve expertise in how they undertake their work.   Finally, when they perform before an audience they are well-versed in every bow-stroke, every finger placement, the choices necessary so that as a group they can come to make perfect music together under the direction of a talented conductor.
Likewise, an established Board of experienced Directors having invested in their own professional development as well as in their practice as a group, have a developed, inclusive, respectful, dynamic for decision-making with balanced reflections and opinions.  They are led by a strong Chair, who is able, among other roles to frame arguments and provide guidance in the process of broad consideration of factors while not allowing an environment, issue, elements or fear impede when action must be taken.  

With the brevity of their experience, it would not be unfair to presume that directors are still struggling with a dynamic that includes fragmented opinions in trying to deal with this dilemma.  

How can the Boards be assisted in their decision-making processes?  What does a Board need in such a situation?
What the Yeshivah Boards require and certainly should be supported and aided in their undertakings with, is a safe space.  A space where the group can come together, discuss, reach conclusions and act without additional pressure, various threats or ill-will present and with the confidence of confidentiality.  

Unfortunately, Yeshivah is not a community given to confidentiality and this is a trait that must be learnt by Directors as much as anyone else.  There is far too much leakage damaging their own opportunities for a 'safe space' to work in.  Every time conversations are held over Shabbat tables they spread to 10, 25, 50 people at enormous speed. With the same speed comes additional pressures and distress from various members of the schools, congregations, community and media that re-bound to prevent the Directors from working within the safe space they need.

There are many looking over the shoulders of the Directors of Yeshivah.  At this crucial time they deserve a Safe Space; if gifted with it they must make the most of the opportunity, rather than diminishing their own opportunities by not respecting their commitment to each other and their community.

Thursday, 13 April 2017


A tale of leadership failing to fulfil their obligations.
When words of goodwill are unaccompanied by action, inevitably they become hollow.  With the added weight of leadership behind them, when will an absence of action come to be perceived as an act of complicity?   

Rabbi Telsner
Over the last eighteen months, there has been much talk and repeated issuing of communal correspondence from various Yeshivah leadership groups expressing a desire to engage with, respect and find some form of recompense for the victims of sexual abuse.
Without the undertakings required by leadership, words become meaningless, as in the ongoing case of Rabbi Telsner.

In September 2015, following enormous pressure in the wake of Case 22 of the Royal Commission, Rabbi Telsner submitted a letter to the Yeshivah Centre, advising of his resignation as Head Rabbi. In his letter, Rabbi Telsner recognised that his conduct toward victims and their families did not demonstrate values or behaviour to the extent necessary of a rabbi in his position.  He went on to apologise for his conduct and urge everyone to show compassion and support toward victims and their families.
Rabbi Telsner’s presence as a communal leader, much less as Head Rabbi, was spoken of by victims of sexual abuse as a long-standing barb and cause for offence.  His resignation was accepted with alacrity by Yeshivah Centre.   This resignation certainly afforded the victims some solace and a modicum of acknowledgement and apology from Rabbi Telsner.   In it’s immediate acceptance Yeshivah conceded the pain that had been caused.  At the time, it remained only for Yeshivah to show their own commitment and sincerity, not just by accepting the resignation - but by sourcing a new Head Rabbi.
Over eighteen months have passed since Rabbi Telsner resigned. Notwithstanding, as of last week, numerous members of the community report that in the Yeshivah Synagogue and within the community, all the markers continue to exist that identify Rabbi Telsner as Head Rabbi.  
These include his being referred to as Moreh D’atrah - The ‘Master of the Place’ and most Senior Halachic Decision-maker and that he continues to officiate at life cycle events, such as weddings, of other congregants.  Within the synagogue, he regularly sits in the Head Rabbi’s seat, is waited for by the congregation at all weekly and festival prayer services and delivers the sermons on these occasions.  On special occasions such as the Farbrengen held to celebrate the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe within the community, Rabbi Telsner was seated at the Centre Seat of the Head Table.
Further, Rabbi Telsner maintains an office in the Synagogue building, is co-Head of the Chabad Kashrut Committee and as reported at the Royal Commission, continues to be the recipient of a salary from the Yeshivah Centre.
Looking at the functions that Rabbi Telsner undertakes and the interactions he has with the community it is easy to interpret that he continues in the role of Head Rabbi of Yeshivah Centre.  
While much noise was made at the time regarding the acceptance of the letter of resignation  by Yeshivah, it seems a silent choice has since been undertaken to ignore or forget about it by those who carry the authority of the organisation.
Since Rabbi Telsner’s ’resignation’, none of the five Yeshivah leadership groups with the relevant authority to complete this act of respect toward the victims, to source a new Head Rabbi for Yeshivah to replace Rabbi Telsner have as much as placed an advertisement for the role.  
These groups include the original Yeshivah Trustees; the first and second Interim Committees of Management; the Interim Board of the newly incorporated Chabad Institutions of Victoria Ltd (CIVL) and the current Board of CIVL.  
In this regard, one could certainly make a case that the leadership of Yeshivah over eighteen months have neither understood nor acted to respect  the pain of victims abused within their care, in decades past and in less distant times.  They have not chosen to act, acknowledge and step up as they should have by effecting the completion of this important matter.    In this regard, one after another, they participated in facilitating a series of repeated slaps in the face to the victims of sexual abuse.
Every day that no apparent change occurs, that no action is taken to pursue this matter, a message is sent to the victims and likewise the wider community.  
A message that the words of the leadership were and remain ineffectual.   
It speaks of the continued circling of the wagons.  It spoke of continued prioritisation and protection of the institution at the expense of those individuals who suffered.  It speaks of lack of willingness to drive that most difficult and most important of matters, cultural change.
Failure to act by the Yeshivah leadership is a continued betrayal of the victims of sexual abuse.  Redress for victims is more than just money.  They seek apologies, some of which have as yet not been provided and a cleansing of house of those who were responsible and whose continued presence remains a reminder to them of ongoing pain and suffering.
The Board of CIVL who have current oversight of the Yeshivah Synagogue are relatively new to their task and thankfully, have the opportunity to address this matter in a timely fashion, rather than become an adjunct to those in leadership that have preceded them.   They have the opportunity to send a very different message.
To once again let this matter drift, will unfortunately have them join a line of Yeshivah leadership who have failed the test of leadership.    Alternatively, the new Board of CIVL has the opportunity to display leadership in this matter, long overdue.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017


Last Friday saw the completion of the public hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
As one might imagine, over the last few days a deluge of statistics have been shared with the public reflecting the tragedy of matters unpacked by the Commission.
The Jewish community in Melbourne has focused its lens of sexual child abuse overwhelmingly on the most religious for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are the case studies that that the Royal Commission used to exemplify what community stakeholders have referred to as an epidemic of abuse that occurred beneath the Yeshivah banner.   Adass has likewise been under the microscope in light of the events surrounding and the extensive, ongoing, media coverage of Malka Leifer, former principal of the school.
While in these instances poor governance, ignorance and a desire to place an institutional or individual reputation above the care of the victim have been seen to allow for the worst of decisions, it would be disingenuous to believe that others have not made similar choices.  Poor choices rarely take place in isolation.  
This is the reality in the wider world and there is no reason to believe that the situation would be any different in the Jewish world of Melbourne.   Abuse has taken place across the spectrum of Jewish Melbourne, religious and otherwise.  It has been found in a number of our schools over past decades; it is a given that these or like incidents have occurred in further institutions in our community.   
The community has already seen reports in the media of abuse having taken place in some of our major institutions that were not addressed by the Commission.  The overwhelming number of victims have chosen to retain their privacy, a choice that has generally empowered unidentified institutions, organisations or environments where the victims were abused to retain their reputations and control.  Commonly, it has left them and the individuals in authority with the power to choose to act as they would and these choices have not alway been admirable.
Speak to victims or members of their families and you will hear stories of practices in environments, on occasion particularly lamentable, where victims, the youngest of children and their families were not protected, while the abusers interests were prioritised and facilitated.
So while Yeshivah may have been justifiably hauled over white-hot coals by the Royal Commission - there are other Jewish schools, organisations, leaders and individuals that have chosen to keep their heads down throughout and not take appropriate steps of redress or apology - have chosen to guard reputation rather than take an opportunity to acknowledge and clean house.  
On Sunday I had the pleasure to attend the Dedication of a Building of a Jewish school; inasmuch the formal launch of a new school in our community.   There was much to celebrate at the morning's events; not the least of which the Principal's speech during which, amongst other topics, he addressed the importance of compliance.  Not a usual subject matter on these occasions.  After formalities, parents spoke repeatedly of having found an environment where emphasis was placed on open communications  between families, students and staff.   I heard the same message from staff - how this was a school where any and all communications between staff and leadership was both welcome and encouraged.   There is no doubt that if you have a focus on child safety you are going to have to be thinking about consistent, open and safe communications.  The informal tour I received  pointed out various features and modifications in the building designed to address and guarantee child safety.  A range of further teacher commitments to the same end were also highlighted with real enthusiasm.  I have to say that those who established this institution have been listening.  They have taken the safety of our children directly to the heart of their practices and one would find it more likely that this commitment has created parameters where attendant children will be assured of safety.
There are a couple of points to be made here.  Firstly, don't take it for granted that just because your child was, or is, at an institution where abuse has not been publicly highlighted, your child's school or institution of care has been, or is, exemplary in it's history or current Child Safe practices.  You can take it as a given that there are more organisations than otherwise that have chosen not to advertise a negative past given the option.
Advocate today that the organisations to whom you entrust your child has appropriate Child Safety Elements in place, the appropriate policies and procedures.  This requires more than a signboard on a fence or a policy posted on a website.  Ensure that policies reflect quality  and that these are more than paper documents but part of the heart of how the organisation operates, part of their ethos.  
This goes for all the organisations you trust with your child's presence.
The Royal Commission may be winding down, but the community should recognise this time as one for us to reflect, address our shortcomings and improve our circumstances.  Those that have left past victims unacknowledged and those that require profound commitments to installation of mechanisms to ensure child safety in the future must step up and attend to matters.
History is the most telling predictor of likely future behaviour.  

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Tzedek - A Night of Healing

Anton Block (Pres.)
Executive Council Australian Jewry
On Monday evening, in the wake of the impact of the Royal Commission members of the community gathered at the invitation of TZEDEK, a victim advocacy group with a focus on the prevention of child sexual abuse in our community.  
Under the steerage of CEO, Michele Meyer, a spectrum of community members came together to reflect and engage on where we are, what there is to be learnt and what it means for us to find ourselves in this position.  Obviously in a brief evening these matters could barely be addressed in full, but the thoughtfulness of those selected to address the audience, the sensitivity of the speakers and their heartfelt sincerity would have been a boon to many in the audience.
I want to say a few words about the presence and words that distinguished Anton Block, President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry on Monday night.  
Two years ago, during Case Study 22 there was next to no-one present other than victims, those summoned to provide testimony by the Commission, counsel for various individuals and organisations, officers of the Commission, support staff and media.  I was shocked at the absence of our communal leadership, the JCCV,  the ECAJ and leaders of other major communal organisations religious and/or secular.  Our Jewish community leaders commonly seen bumping each other sideways for space at the podium during communal events were nowhere to be found.  The community had disappeared and only a few individuals were present to provide support - overwhelmingly it seemed for those whom the Royal Commission were taking to task.  
Who was there for the victims of abuse?  To witness?  To acknowledge?  To support? I could count them on the fingers of one hand.
Numerous other communal organisations that should have had a presence in that room from beginning to end to witness and fortify those most in need, to provide them with validation and assurance were entirely absent.  When I took this absence up with those in leadership I spoke to over the following weeks I heard common themes; "We listened on-line"; "We weren't asked to be there"; "We were too busy".  Repeated refrains from the same excuse book.  Pitiful and shameful.
To be honest over the last two years it has been difficult to see much of anyone in leadership step up and be prepared to stand by the victims, articulate their rights and fight for their entitlements in our community.
On Monday night Anton acknowledged these failings of leadership.  He reflected on his own experiences at the Royal Commission last week as part of a Jewish Community Leadership Panel.  On his own profound shock to find the Jewish community in such a position - leader after leader of the Jewish community asked whether shunning of a victim could ever be considered appropriate - and being asked again, leader after leader, whether there could there be any ambiguity to the question. 
On Monday night Anton apologised for our leadership, apologised for their absence, apologised for failures to our children and apologised to the victims.  A long overdue and heartfelt apology that brought me to tears. 
I hope the victims, those present on the night and those who will hear his words later, begin to find some measure of solace in his words.
Most importantly, I hope Anton's apology is owned by all community leaders, by all to whom they must be an example.  The time for excuses is over.    

marcia pinskier

Monday, 27 March 2017

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - Afterthoughts

For some who may have been following my notes on Facebook during my attendance over the last few days in Sydney it may seem that whatever may be needed to be said has been worked up and down.
Sadly no - and I suspect that I among others will have thoughts to share in the wake of the Commission for some time to come.

Today I wanted to make a few comments about an article that was issued in the on-line Jerusalem Post on March 23, the day of Case Study 53, when the Royal Commission re-visited Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshivah Bondi.  This Case Study followed Case Study 22, a further examination of the institutions two years later, in relation to child-protection and child-safety standards, including their responses to allegation of child sexual abuse and associated matters.

If the community is coming to learn one thing with the passage of time, slowly and painfully; it is that the victims of child sexual abuse under the 'care' of our institutions deserve respect, dignity, recognition and acknowledgment.   They are not to be shunned or ostracised, not to be unseen or disregarded and they are to be supported in every way possible through their pain.

In light of this, on the very day of Case Study 53, to see a journalist intimate that previously there was only one survivor of abuse who spoke publicly during Case Study 22 at the Royal Commission and that his testimony - and the findings of the Commission - were responsible for leading to sea changes in Chabad does not impress.  

Case Study 22 was held in an open Court Room.  As one of the members of the community who attended for most of the weeks during which the Case Study was held, along with  the thousands who listened on-line; we are all aware that there were a number of victims who told their harrowing stories in this very public space and that their bravery, dignity and willingness to step forward contributed overwhelmingly to the recommendations of the Commission and the following outcomes for the Yeshivah community.

That all these victims are not acknowledged as having even been present to give testimony much less in regard to their enormous contributions to the community is only another form of disrespect and abuse of those who have been previously disdained and disrespected.  Along with many in the community these victims contributed to the outcomes of the Commission and it is of consequence that just as the Royal Commission has constantly remembered that it is interacting and engaging with a wider community - so too should the media when reporting the facts.

Hold off on the Gold Stars

Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM On Tuesday 16 May, Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM, Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Re...