National apology provides sense of vindication

Robert Stroop gave his grandparents’ Righteous Among the Nations medal to Manny Waks (pictured holding it) for his courage in addressing the issue of child sexual abuse. Photo: Peter Haskin

Seven years after MANNY WAKS publicly revealed he was sexually abused at Yeshivah in Melbourne, he attended the National Apology in Canberra with other victims this week. These are his thoughts:

It’s 4.30 in the morning. I’m in a Canberra hotel. It’s the morning of the federal government’s National Apology to victims/survivors of institutional child sexual abuse and their families. It’s a big day for many of us, so I thought I’d try to get an early night and a good sleep. But around 1am it all changed.

I was awoken by the screams of a victim of child sexual abuse who was staying in my hotel for the apology. It lasted a long time, and try as I might, I just couldn’t fall back asleep. Even for a seasoned campaigner like me, the experience was confronting and yet another triggering moment.
This was another stark reminder of today’s significance.

It was also an opportunity to reflect on the profound and prolonged suffering of many victims/survivors. Only a few weeks ago, while in my home in Israel, I made the decision to attend today’s landmark event.

As the Jewish community’s whistle-blower on this issue and the current head of Kol v’Oz, an organisation that addresses the issue of child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, I felt it was my duty to represent many of the victims/survivors of child sexual abuse within the Australian Jewish community institutions.

Believe me when I tell you that there are many more victims/survivors from Jewish community institutions than you could imagine.

From my perspective, the federal government needed to apologise for two main failures on their part. First, they had to apologise to those who were abused as children while under the legal care of the state. Second, the government had to take responsibility for their failure to address this issue properly – from setting out clear guidelines and policies to the failures by law enforcement and other agencies.

And in my humble opinion, the apologies by both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader addressed these matters ­appropriately. Moreover, many survivors felt a sense of vindication and empowerment – our political leaders were acknowledging our abuse, as well as our pain and suffering.

It brought together the broad range of victims/survivors – from foster homes, sporting clubs, religious and welfare organisations – into the one room. We could see each other, and we could feel that we were not alone. There was a great deal of camaraderie, empathy and understanding in the room. And of course, the apology ­continued the national conversation on this still somewhat taboo topic.

Having said that, I believe that the most critical aspect of the apology is yet to come and I endorse, from personal experience, the words of a survivor who was quoted by the Prime Minister – “An apology without action is just a piece of paper.”

The true test is what happens next. In our community, we have seen various approaches to apologies from institutions who have failed in their responses to child sexual abuse, victims/survivors and their families.

Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre has issued an “apology” which has proved to be meaningless as they failed to follow up by holding those who were in positions of responsibility to account.

(Rabbis) Zvi Telsner and Chaim Tzvi Groner, who have not been accused of abusing children but were leaders in the organisation when victims were re-victimised, have been allowed to retain senior roles at Yeshivah. What is the point of apologising if you allow the people whose conduct is the very reason for the apology to escape accountability?

As I wrote in the Apology Memory Book, where survivors were encouraged to share their reflections: “Yeshivah Centre, I will not rest until there is greater accountability. Rabbis Telsner and Groner MUST go.”

Moreover, while some non-Jewish institutions have followed up their apologies by taking down tributes to those responsible for abuse and installing plaques recognising the suffering of abuse victims/survivors on their premises, Yeshivah recently hosted a large event honouring Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, the man in charge of Yeshivah when dozens of children were abused. So much for cultural change.

Add to that the periodic, vile public attacks against victims from members of the Yeshivah community that continue to go unaddressed by a board which had vowed to stamp this out (the most recent being an attack against me on the eve of Yom Kippur by a former member of the Yeshivah board), and I see that institution’s apology as no more than a cynical public relations exercise.

The Rabbinates in NSW and Victoria were quick to make statements following the Royal Commission about reforming their organisations and rebuilding confidence from the community.

The Royal Commission had exposed some of their members and leaders as having been involved in covering up abuse, attacking victims and their families as well as an inadequacy of internal processes to deal with complaints.

“We believe that those who denigrated or undermined the victims have lost their moral right to serve as leaders in our communities” were the words they had used back when the cameras were rolling. But now that the spotlight has passed, they appear to have reverted to their old ways.

The Rabbinical Council of NSW has still not addressed a complaint which was made around two years ago about Rabbi Pinchus Feldman (yes, he is still a member) in relation to his mishandling of child sexual abuse incidents, while the Rabbinical Council of Victoria continues to provide professional support to disgraced rabbis.

And then there is the Adass Israel School, which hasn’t even managed to issue a public apology of any note to its victims whose long wait for justice continues because of their actions.

Even so, given some of the subsequent decision-making of the school board, it seems obvious they haven’t learned anything anyway.

Sadly, it still feels as though in the Jewish community, it is left to a few victims/survivors to pursue the lonely task of holding institutions to account and changing the culture on a subject nobody wants to address.

So, while the National Apology is significant, it is important that institutions do not see it as absolving them of their responsibilities.

Nor should any institution think that an apology, compensation or other form of redress can ever repair the often life-long damage they have done to children under their care and their families who trusted them.

I hope that this landmark government apology will have its main desired effect: to assist in the ongoing healing process of the many who have been impacted by the scourge of child sexual abuse within institutions.

But just as importantly, I hope that the apology is followed by actions in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission upon which the genuineness of the apology will ultimately be judged.

MANNY WAKS