No Faith Is Free From Child Abuse Scandals or Cover-Ups
What has been happening in Sydney and Melbourne is doubly shocking. First, there have been revelations over a rabbi who abused children at a yeshivah, Jewish learning seminary over many years, which was then followed by a cover-up when allegations surfaced.
Second, it is a wake-up call to Jewish communities in the UK to be vigilant about a problem from which, until now, we thought we were immune. It was all too easy to think that paedophile ministers were rife in the Church of England and the Catholics, but not really an issue for us.
Almost as disturbing as the crimes are the cover-up by others in the hierarchy, across all faiths, who certainly regard the offender with disapproval but are motivated by fear that if one person is exposed, then that will tarnish the rest of the group – be it the church, synagogue or mosque. In fact, the opposite is true: colluding with a perpetrator is what really tarnishes the group at large, while it also denies justice to the victim, which should have been the prime concern.
What causes such warped responses? Is it the naivety of hoping they could handle the problem and so there was no need to bring in outside authorities; or is it the nervousness of thinking that if one crack was exposed in the faith-group, then the entire edifice would collapse; or is it the hubris of reckoning that on balance the faith-group do more good than evil and so should be excused any failings; or is it that they felt under attack already, battling so many secular enemies, that they could not afford to show any weak spots, especially clerical failings?
There is another big question: but how to keep going despite the child abuses scandals – because actually there are plenty of vicars, priests and rabbis that do not abuse children, but are being stymied because of the suspicion that surrounds every inter-personal action.
It is good practice for classrooms or offices in religious buildings to have windows put into the doors, so that anyone passing by can check that nothing untoward is going on inside. Personally, I always leave my study door open whenever doing one to one interviews, so that there can be no suggestion of any impropriety. But I dislike the implication that being alone with someone is now potentially dangerous for them.
It is certainly been a long time, since I patted a child on the back at the Religion School, lest a gesture of encouragement or warmth be seen as ‘touching up’. But I resent having to stop, as it is giving in to a culture of fear, and letting the evil committed by child abusers poison the minds of the overwhelming majority that abhor it.
Yes, we have to be aware of abuse and guard against it, but we also have to protect values such as trust and friendship – be vigilant but also maintain a generosity of spirit – and getting that balance right is difficult for civil society, but is especially problematic for faith groups as a religious approach tries to assume the best in people.
But there is no doubt that religious whistleblowers are to be admired rather than ostracised, as so often happens. The Book of Leviticus does not use that word, but certainly backs the cause: ‘You shall not stand idly by wrong-doing…you shall speak out against those who commit evil, otherwise you share in their guilt’ (19. 16-17)
The problem is not that we lack religious guidance, but that individuals do not always follow it, and religious institutions sometimes put self-interest above their own principles. What has happened to the Jewish community in Australia is an important warning that none of us can ignore.