On a cold June evening at the Caulfield Pavilion, a remarkable event took place. A crowd of over 50 people came together for a joint event hosted by impacttogether with Tzedek, a Jewish organisation focussed on the prevention and abolition of child sexual abuse. Each person there heard stories and accounts that are rarely, if ever, told and discussed in such detail and with such candour.
Titled ‘Working Together to Keep our Children Safe’, the panel consisted of Rae le Fleur, an abuse survivor and advocate, Inspector Bernie Edwards from the Victoria Police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team, and The Hon Ted Baillieu, former Victorian Premier, together with Dr Micelle Meyer, CEO of Tzedek, and Kathy Kaplan OAM, founder of impact. The moderator for the event was Adam Slonim, who began by asking Michelle, Kathy and Bernie about the indicators and warning signs of abuse and violence in both adults and kids. All three talked about the physical, psychological and potentially unseen indicators, and talked about the authenticity, integrity and believability of the victims. Many of these indicators are well known and were known to many in the audience.
What was unknown, and what became the first remarkable story of the night, was that of Rae le Fleur. When the moderator turned to her, she seemed a little hesitant, started off speaking rather quietly, and apologised for reading from her notes. But when she began in earnest, no-one even noticed that she was reading because the audience were hanging on every word. In fact, the entire room was silent and amazed by what they were hearing. Not one person was on their phone or even whispering to their neighbour. Rae’s story of her abuse at the hands of trusted family friends and their kids when she was 6, 7 and 8, was as captivating as it was horrific. She explained the abuse in some detail, and the side effects that came with it, including bullying, mental distress and long-term anxiety. Having just heard about some of the indicators, she also chillingly said that all the indicators were there, but none of the supposedly trusted adults noticed them or believed her.
Later, when asked when and how she started to talk about her abuse, she said that for many years she suppressed that side of her life. Even her husband had no inkling. And it was only when her first child was a toddler that the memories came flooding back. Eventually her husband noticed that she was acting a little oddly, and when he asked her about it, she barely managed to whisper to him some of the details. But over time she found the strength to speak up and eventually met with Michelle Meyer from Tzedek and told her story in full. She has now become an advocate for other victims, but when she first told her Holocaust-surviving grandmother, the response shocked her and everyone in the audience as well. Her grandmother had said, ‘don’t worry, worse things have happened’. Rae’s message was that finding the right people to speak to is critical, and members of one’s family may often not be the right people.
After then hearing from some of the panel members about the difference between being a bystander and an upstander – that an upstander is someone who does something – the former Premier was asked why and how he became an upstander in this field. He too told a remarkable story that began with his time in government. As Premier, he said, he had the chance to meet many people and many communities. And through a series of circuitous circumstances, after already becoming an advocate for a number of causes with various community groups, he had agreed to attend an event at Yeshiva in Melbourne, which turned out to be after his reign in the top job. To his credit, he turned up anyway, and it was there that he met Dassi Erlich, one of the leading voices in the campaign to bring Malka Leifer back to Australia. Malka of course was the notorious former Principal of Adass Girls School, who had abused Dassi and her sisters, and is now holed up in an Israeli jail but wanted on 74 child molestation counts in Melbourne. Mr Baillieu said that one of the greatest lessons he learned as a leader is that it is a very powerful thing for leaders to stand up for victims. And once he met Dassi, he realised that he was in a very powerful position to be a strong advocate on her behalf. He even joked that when it comes to Dassi, his real task is to do whatever it is that she asks of him.
As we later heard, Mr Baillieu gives Dassi advice on a wide range of matters related to the case, and raises the issue whenever and wherever he can. As such, he accompanied Dassi to a meeting with the Prime Minister and ensured that the Prime Minister raised the issue with Bibi Netanyahu on two occasions. Though the case is yet to be resolved in the way that Dassi and her supporters hope it will be, the fact that Malka is in jail and that a trial date for her extradition has been set, are victories that Dassi and her team can be duly proud of.
Whilst the rest of the panel discussion focussed on what Mr Baillieu called ‘moving the line of normality’, meaning changing the views within certain minority communities of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, the evening finished with yet another remarkable moment. Though not part of the panel, Dassi Erlich was in the audience and after some more wise words from each of the panel members about re-setting the line, making it easier to go to the police and changes that the Jewish community has and can continue to make, Dassi got up and presented Mr Baillieu, or simply Ted as she calls him, with a gift. She also spoke of the great bond that the two of them had established, and how much he has really helped her. She confessed that she knew almost nothing about navigating the political quagmire when she started this campaign, and barely knew who all the politicians were. Ted helped her, and was of particular assistance when she asked to bring a companion along to an Adass board meeting, and turned up with the former Premier. Ted spoke as glowingly of her as she did of him. It was clear that their bond is now mutual and genuine, but both of them also said that they will not stop until Malka is back in Australia facing a trial, and until this issue of child abuse in the Jewish community and in the broader community is eliminated or curtailed as much as possible.
Kathy and Michelle, from impact and Tzedek respectively, concluded the night by showing a video and by talking about the practical manner in which both their organisations can assist victims, survivors and those who have questions about indicators and misgivings. Speaking to Tzedek was one of the greatest moments of Rae’s life because she was finally able to open up to a person and to an organisation that listened and took her seriously. That is also what Dassi said about Ted and others who have become her advocates, because each survivor has a remarkable story, but one that we hear all too often. The bravery of Rae and Dassi, the advocacy work of Ted and the importance of the work of the Victoria Police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team were all on show, but one hopes that one day, these will simply be remarkable, historical and almost unbelievable stories rather than current and active cases.
This article was written by Alex Kats, impact Board Member