The commissioner charged with engaging yeshivas on child safeguarding has said it is “like playing whack-a-mole” because they up sticks and move once detected.
Independent Child Safeguarding Commissioner of City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership Jim Gamble, a former senior policeman from Northern Ireland, made the comments under oath to public prosecutor Fiona Scolding.
Gamble, who has spent seven years trying to engage yeshivas, was giving evidence via Zoom at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on Tuesday, with strictly Orthodox Jewish leaders set to respond on Wednesday.
The commissioner said engagement from the Charedi community had been the most problematic of all the faith groups he had worked with.
“No tradition, no culture can be allowed to prevent us from delivering the same level of safeguarding of children in one location as we do in another. That is the frustration that we feel.
“We have it with other organisations – Christian churches where deacons and other have been very legalistic – but nowhere does it manifest itself on this scale, and with the disruptive influence that it does within this particular sect.”
The public inquiry is considering the issue of child protection in religious organisations and settings, including child protection policies and safeguarding cultures in religious organisations in England and Wales.
Further to his 20-page witness statement, Gamble said there were a “suspected 40 yeshivas”, which authorities call ‘unregulated education settings’, but that it was “virtually impossible” to map them. He said he had asked strictly Orthodox leaders for yeshivas’ locations but had had no response.
Parents of Charedi boys aged 12-17 typically choose to send their sons to yeshivas to learn the Talmud, at which point Gamble said they “disappear from the system”, but while he said 11 different religious organisations had engaged with his Commission, including its training, yeshivas had not.
He told Scolding that trying to engage yeshiva was “like playing whack-a-mole… with locations that will move simply to avoid engagement”.
Gamble said his Commission had “at times made progress with Charedi leaders, at times that’s been driven backwards,” citing a “lack of trust with central government”. He said there would be initial agreement, only for it to “dissipate”.
He said yeshivas have “a very narrow curriculum… those that support and deliver within that environment do not want to expand it in the way the Department for Education (DfE) or indeed Ofsted expect them to do and that creates a problem”.
Gamble said: “Even when we’re paying those in the community to deliver training, they can’t tell us – nor will those with a significant level of authority within the Charedi community tell us – where those yeshivas are. We’re left with a significant concern.
“Where we do find them, we typically find between 140-200 young boys in an environment where we cannot reassure ourselves that the security is appropriate. In some locations, you can simply walk in without being challenged until people realise who you are, where the back door and fire escapes are locked.
“Sometimes you walk into what appears to be a terraced house, only to find that inside all the walls have been knocked down so that it’s much, much bigger. When you try to engage with those hosting that particular facility, you meet obstruction. In some cases that I’m personally aware of, you meet slightly worse than that.”
Gamble said at the yeshivas he visits “no-one can tell you who is present, no-one can give you any idea about numbers,” adding: “We’ve been trying to deal with this for seven years”.
He said he had tried to engage Charedi umbrella group the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC) but always reached “a stalemate position, no matter how hard we work to reassure, to listen to the cultural concerns”.
The Commission, local authorities and Ofsted have long urged the DfE that primary legislation is needed for local authorities to designate yeshivas as schools, giving them legal inspection and enforcement powers. It would mean, for the first time, that yeshivas had to have – and adhere to – safeguarding policies.
However, the Government’s Green Paper still does not give local authorities the power to designate yeshivas as schools if they do not self-designate as such, with Gamble saying this means he and others would be “trapped in a voluntary world” that was evidently not solving the problem.
Earlier this year Jewish News reported how Gamble’s commission recorded that its efforts to safeguard an estimated 1,500 teenage Jewish boys attending illegal yeshivas were being “frustrated” by Charedi leaders.
At the time, Gamble said he had been told that yeshivas would only co-operate on safeguarding on a “quid pro quo” basis. This week he said safeguarding children was “non-negotiable” after revealing that it had been used as a bargaining chip.