Lessons learned

Some people accused me of being responsible for this matter being reported in the media in the first place, which of course had nothing to do with me.

Manny Waks (right) pictured with Australian ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan and Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter.
Manny Waks (right) pictured with Australian ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan and Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter.

The recent allegation of a sexual assault in Israel allegedly committed by a male Bialik College student from Melbourne against a female Emanuel School student from Sydney understandably stirred up considerable emotion and discussion within the Australian Jewish community, especially by those connected to the schools and students involved.

Although Israeli prosecutors ultimately decided not to charge the boy, the incident and the community response, including the handling of the situation by the schools involved, gives rise to an opportunity for further reflection and education on this sensitive subject.

Several days before the allegation became public, some of the media became aware that the Israeli police were conducting an investigation and that a Bialik student was ‘a person under suspicion’.

Once the media began contacting the schools for comment, Bialik sent an email to parents of the approximately 1,000 students who attend the school, advising them that a student had committed a ‘serious breach of the rules and expectations’ of the Chavayah program and had been ‘removed from the program’.

The email went on to further highlight the seriousness of the breach, noting that it was being ‘investigated by Israeli authorities’ and that the Principal would be immediately travelling to Israel.

As could have been foreseen, that email was widely disseminated by some recipients to a much larger audience, including to the media, leading to the incident becoming well-known throughout the broader community.

The first issue that arises is whether it was necessary or appropriate that Bialik should have notified the entire parent body that one of their students had committed a serious breach and been removed from the program.

I am not an expert in crisis communications or whether the information contained in the email could have been expressed differently, but I do know all too well that sitting back and waiting for stakeholders to find out about sensitive matters through the media or worse still, attempting to keep things hushed up, is misguided and inevitably exacerbates an already difficult situation.

The reality of the world in which we live is that incidents such as these become known to the media and aware that this had occurred, and that media coverage of the incident was imminent, Bialik took the view that it was better that parents hear directly from them.

Of course, this incident had nothing to do with me and it is not my intention to make it about me.

For what it is worth, I was contacted by the media prior to the Bialik email to parents. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to appreciate that as an Australian Jewish survivor of child sexual abuse who works extensively in this area, some members of the media were interested in my comments when an allegation of this nature arose.

I immediately contacted the Bialik Principal, Mr Jeremy Stowe-Lindner, and brought this to his attention.

Much as I would like to do so in the interests of dispelling some of the ill-informed criticism which has been directed my way, I will not divulge the content of our discussions.

Suffice it to say that the subsequent comments which I provided to the media and my decision to post as I did on Facebook, were neither reckless nor made without consultation.

As a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, and someone who has dealt with hundreds of allegations of this type, I take no pleasure in hearing of such allegations or from being asked to comment on them.

Once the cat was out of the bag, there was no way to stop the media reporting on the matter.

All of us who were contacted for comment by the media tried, with limited success, to ensure those journalists covering the incident did so with fairness and appropriate sensitivity given it involved two children.

It was an unfortunate feature of this incident that some members of the community then chose to focus on the fact that the media reported the incident and how the media came to know about it, instead of focussing on the fact that a child had alleged that a serious assault had been committed against them, that the adults to whom the incident had been reported considered it necessary to assist the child in making a complaint to the police and that Bialik itself acknowledged that their student had committed a ‘serious breach of the rules and expectations’ of the Chavayah program.

At the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse case hearing into Yeshivah, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick noted this tendency of individuals, when confronted with allegations of child sexual abuse, to ‘circle the wagons in order to protect the institution’.

I came under particularly heavy criticism by some community members, mainly by those associated with the schools and students involved, for having provided my comments to the media and for having posted them on my Facebook page together with the email which Bialik had sent to parents, which was already in possession of the media.

Some people accused me of being responsible for this matter being reported in the media in the first place, which of course had nothing to do with me.

Others went further, including accusing me of stirring up anti-Semitism, arguing (without any evidence) that the reporting of alleged wrongdoing by Jews encouraged our haters and by implication, that Jews should try to keep incidents of this nature in-house.

It goes without saying that the Bialik student is entitled to the presumption of innocence and to acknowledge that charges have not been laid

It also goes without saying that the fact that an allegation was made in the first place should be the main focus of all concerned.

As an anti-child sex abuse advocate and educator, I am unashamedly committed to always supporting complainants and believing them.

This is based on my own experience in this field and undisputed statistics that instances of false allegations of sexual assault are extraordinarily rare and that, because of the inherent difficulties of proving sexual assaults beyond reasonable doubt, very few instances of sexual assault are successfully prosecuted, or even make it to court.

Of course we would all prefer that incidents such as these did not appear in the media.

But the way to prevent that is to try to stop them happening in the first place. That can only be done through ongoing education and discussion.

Our community and schools have made great strides in recent years, but there is clearly a long way to go.

The most important lesson for the community is to continue to have conversations around child sexual assault and to continue the education. In particular, schools need to continue the education of their boards, staff, parents and students around issues of consent.

It is a fact that child sexual assault is prevalent in our community, just like any other.

We must work to ensure that we maintain educated and safe environments so that we can do all we can to prevent such incidents taking place.

Manny Waks is CEO of Kol v’Oz, an Israel-based organisation which combats child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community.

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