Turning a Blind Eye to Abuse

By Ellie Cannon (The Jewish Chronicle)
October 21, 2012

After the past few weeks of headlines, I'd be happy to hibernate for the winter and no longer read about kids going missing with strangers, teachers abducting teenagers or allegedly paedophilic presenters from my childhood.

Instead, I urge you to do the opposite. Read how suspicions can be ignored and the vulnerable left at risk. Learn where and how it all seemed to go wrong. We all tut-tut when we see these cases, because they could never happen to our families or in our community, right? Wrong. This could, and does, happens right here, right now, on our doorstep. And yes, I do mean within the Jewish community.

We like to pretend bad things don't happen within our walls, but no community is immune to contemporary ills. This is something well illustrated by the recent rash of crime in Golders Green fuelled by online poker addiction.

The child sexual abuse scandals involving members of the Rochdale and Rotherham Asian communities has highlighted how ignoring the community or ethnic aspect of a case can have devastating consequences.

We should reflect on that and think what would happen if this occurred in the British Jewish community. Such scandals have erupted in Jewish communities in America and Australia; it's by no means impossible here, not for any branch of Judaism.

A friend told me recently about a teacher in his school known as the "tickler". When the bell rang for break, the children had to run to the playground to avoid him, with one unlucky boy plucked out to be tickled. My friend was never picked - he was strong enough to run away and laughs now that he probably wasn't cute enough. But that anecdote, told through the eyes of one of the unlucky boys, would be a very different story.

Child abuse is not a one-off event. It is life shattering, and leads its victims into spirals of depression, addiction, mental illness and physical trauma ad infinitum.

The allegations made against Jimmy Savile don't seem to have surprised anyone. When we used to watch him on TV, we all thought he was a bit weird with his funny bracelets and his cigars, but apparently the BBC was awash with people aware of the claims. Aware that it was an uncomfortable place for young women to work. Aware that children could be in danger.

That bears repeating: supposedly people were aware children could be in danger, yet they did nothing. Insiders have now said that the "culture" at the BBC didn't allow anyone to speak out. Yet again we see a close-knit community shielding a dangerous man .

The Jewish concept of mesirah (the prohibition against reporting a fellow Jew to authorities outside the community) has been used in a number of cases to protect perpetrators of abuse in Charedi communities. Rather than facing up to it, child abuse is dealt with internally or ignored completely.

The kinder side of me would like to assume that, in a society where minimal time is given to psychology and emotion, perhaps the rabbonim don't realise how serious a crime child abuse is. So dealing with it internally does not seem so shameful. Perhaps mothers are too naive to know that what their sons describe is molestation, so they wouldn't think to report it.

We must ensure that awareness is raised. In 2010, baby-faced New Yorker, Motty Borger, 24, committed suicide two days after his wedding, having admitted to his new wife that he had been sexually molested as a teenage yeshivah student. His suicide rocked the Brooklyn community and contributed to a shift in the attitude toward sexual abuse within American Orthodox Judaism. Today, such crimes are now being reported outside, not inside, the community.

After a much publicised case of abuse in a yeshivah college in 2010 in Melbourne, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria (an Orthodox body) spoke against the perceived pressure to keep quiet in cases of abuse. It passed a resolution affirming its unqualified condemnation of all forms of child abuse, and stated that mesirah "does not apply in cases of abuse".

I hope to hear a similar statement from Jewish leaders in the UK.

Dr Ellie Cannon, the JC's medical columnist, is a GP and broadcasts widely on health issues