Rabbi Jonathan Romain

The core issue here is the right to be human – to be free to be oneself and to be free from any form of abuse – mental or physical, which crushes that right.

It is also about the devastatingly painful issue of the role of religion – which should be the natural protector of the vulnerable – but has sometimes been their predator.

So what has gone wrong and how can we set it right?

I was pretty sure that by the time it came to me to speak, we would have used up most of the adjectives that surround the issue of child abuse: appalling – abhorrent – shocking – sickening

But of course the real work is not just to express condemnation, but is three other tasks:

  • to pinpoint blame (so as to expose individual perpetrators)
  • to analyse institutional fault-lines (so that we know why it went so badly wrong in various systems)
  • to instigate preventative measures

And this debate has already helped achieve at least one of them – analysing fault-lines – because I am ashamed to say that when invited to join the panel by Natasha Phillips, my first reaction was:

‘oh – what’s it got to do with the Jewish community? – Church of England, yes…the Catholics, yes…but not really a big issue for us’

But within a second, I realised:


The trap so many of us fall into: of thinking: yes, it’s awful, but it’s nothing to do with me..it couldn’t happen in my backyard…it may go on amongst ‘them’, but it’s nothing to do with my lot. And of course, the moment we say that, we allow child abuse to flourish, because it can happen in anyone’s backyard..and ‘my lot’, British Jewry, is no different from any one else.

And I can quote you numerous texts from the Bible and subsequent Jewish literature talking about the rights of individuals…or the care we need to give children….or how wrong it is to take advantage of the vulnerable…and which I am sure are echoed in other faiths..but that doesn’t mean that real live Jews don’t break those rules, including those in positions of religious authority – such as rabbis and religion school teachers.

In fact I have a Jewish friend who is distraught at the moment because their father is under investigation for possible child abuse and who tells me that he is a lovely kind man, has a long record of public service and couldn’t possibly have done it…and although I am being supportive (because their father may indeed be totally innocent), at the back of my mind I can’t help thinking how irrational the person is being: because we know the guilty include those whom no one suspected at the time…or who maintained a position of respect in society…but who could also be so abominable in secret…and why should that not apply to that person’s father or my father or your father?

And by saying: “it’s impossible”, we are guilty of potentially aiding the cover-up…whereas we should be saying “I hope it’s not possible” …and be ready to face the truth if that’s what should emerge.

Now that would apply whatever position an accused person held – be it a leading brain-surgeon or someone unemployed – but we are focusing on faith groups, which brings two added problems

-firstly, the institutional cover-up: we witnessed last month the former Archbishop of York, Lord Hope, resign following revelations over his failure to report to the police the paedophile activities of Robert Waddington, the Dean of Manchester, which Lord Hope had known about…and what was extraordinary was that here was a former Archbishop of York – right at the very top of the Church hierarchy – yet there was nothing like the shock horror reaction you’d have expected because we were so used to church exposes and cover-ups, especially in the Catholic Church, and instead it was more a matter of: here we go again

Now although I can’t cite a similar instance within the rabbinic world in the UK, I can tell you that there are some minor Jewish communities in Britain which are very insular – the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi who keep to themselves – our equivalent of the Amish – where there is great internal pressure to conform and maintain the group identity, and there is a strong tendency not to report misdemeanours to the civil agencies – be it child abuse or rape or domestic violence – because that is seen as letting the side down, washing dirty linen in public….and should be dealt with internally

(such as by being sent to a different part of community – moving from London, say, to Gateshead, although that effectively means they are free to go on committing abuse elsewhere)

..and what’s just as bad is that if the perpetrator is exposed and taken to court and found guilty, within that closed Haredi society blame can sometimes be attached as much to the victims who reported it and (quote) ‘shamed the community’ ….and they themselves can be ostracised and forced to move away.

And in both cases – church cover-up or Haredi denial – lies a fear that if one particular person is exposed, then that will tarnish the rest of the group – whereas you and I know that colluding with a perpetrator – that’s what really tarnishes the group at large, while it also denies justice to the victim, which should have been the prime concern.

In fact, maybe we should explore that a bit more so as to understand the thinking that causes such warped responses:

Because what fascinates me is not so much that Lord Hope and many others covered up the crimes they discovered, but why they did so?

-was it the naivety of hoping they could handle the problem and so there was no need to bring in outside authorities?

-or was it the nervousness of thinking that if one crack was exposed in the body of the Church, then the entire edifice would collapse?

-or was it the hubris of reckoning that on balance the Church did more good than evil and so should be excused any failings?

-or was it that they felt under attack and in crisis already, with the Church battling so many secular enemies, that it could not afford to show any weak spots, especially clerical failings?

None of the explanations – or others you might suggest – can be used as excuses..but they do highlight why there is plenty of work to be done about changing the culture.

The other major problem affecting faith groups from the child abuse scandals is not just the obvious one of tackling it, but how to keep going despite it – because actually there are plenty of vicars and priests and rabbis that don’t abuse children…that do lots of good, but are being stymied because of the suspicion that surrounds every interpersonal action so that all classrooms or offices in churches & synagogue have windows put into the doors so that anyone passing by can check that nothing untoward is going on in fact, I always leave my study door open whenever doing one to one interviews…so that there can be no suggestion of any impropriety, which isn’t a problem in itself, but I dislike the implication that being alone with someone is now potentially dangerous for them and it’s 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 something I have resisted giving up is that I have two season tickets to my local football club, Reading.Usually I go with my son, but he has begun to travel a lot and so if he’s away I’ll take one of the children from the Religion School – as a treat and especially if they come from a poorer household or don’t have a dad living at home – with the result that each time I go to the stadium I have a different child with me…and maybe I’m projecting unnecessarily, but I do wonder if some of those sitting around me think something’s a bit fishy:

“….this ‘ere bloke with a different child each match…”and that maybe I’m grooming them…and I wonder if I should stop…but don’t because that would be giving in to a culture of fear..and letting the evil committed by child abusers poison the minds of the overwhelming majority that don’t.

All of which means that while we have to be aware of abuse and guard against it, 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.

In fact that tension stretches right back to the 1st century and is recorded in a book called Pirke Avot/Ethics of the Fathers – which records some of the pithy sayings of rabbis from that period, often quoting them in pairs if there were two leading rabbis at a particular time…..as was the case with Joshua ben Perachyah who advised people optimistically:

‘Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a friend, and put the best construction on every person’s conduct’

whereas his contemporary, Nittai the Arbelite, took a more negative view of life and said:

‘Keep away from a bad neighbour, do not associate with the wicked, and do not shrug off the thought of retribution’  (1.6)

and of course both are correct, though it’s not always easy top spot “the wicked” when they are intent on covering up….and somehow we have to walk a religious tightrope between being open and trusting, without being naïve and complicit.

But let me end with a forthright view on another religious aspect: the secret of the confessional and whether Catholic priests are duty bound to maintain those secrets or, in the case of child abuse, should break that seal and report it to the police.

Now we don’t have confession boxes in Judaism, but rabbis are told things in strict confidence as part of our pastoral counselling and we are expected to abide by them

But, unlike the Church, there is no sense of having to do so at the cost of protecting criminal activity – so if I am told the person nibbled a ham sandwich the other day, their secret is safe with me…or if they have a moral dilemma, then I will try to help them work it out

But if they have done actual harm, then I am very clear that my role is to either persuade them to hand themselves into the police, or do it myself

In fact, there is a well-established rabbinic rule that repentance and contrition can pardon the sins you have committed against God, but not the sins you have committed against other people – you can’t pray away those sins – and they have to be rectified through action.

What’s more, the duty to report a crime is incumbent on all Jews – not just rabbis – and one of the key biblical texts, Leviticus 19, which is also read out in synagogue on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is:

‘You shall not stand idly by wrong-doing…you shall speak out against those who commit evil, otherwise you share in their guilt’

(Lev 19 v. 16-17)

So 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

– which is why debates such as these can serve as an important religious alarm-clock…and why none of us can afford to ignore it.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE

Maidenhead Synagogue




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