Lessons Learned at the Australian Royal Commission

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was mandated in 2013 to investigate and draw up recommendations about child abuse cases and the handling of child abuse allegations, mainly in religious institutions and communities.

The Commission was initially specifically in response to reports of abuses in the Catholic Church, and the various child abuse scandals which came to light in Australia, and the systemic cover-up of offenders by the Church’s institutions.

In the past two weeks, the Commissions has turned its attention to child abuse cases and the response to these allegations in Jewish institutions, primarily the Yeshiva Centers in Melbourne and in Sydney, both run by the Chabad movement.

The picture which has emerged has shocked not just the Jewish world, but has been widely reported in scandalous terms in the non-Jewish world also.

Three members of staff at these institutions have already been convicted of sexual offenses against children – David Kramer, David Cyprus and Daniel Hayman

The Commission heard from victims of these perpetrators, recalling the appalling abuse they suffered. In addition, the victims told the Commission how they had reported the abuse to senior members of the rabbinical staff at the two institutions. The response of some of these rabbonim was allegedly to deny, minimize, circle the wagons (around the institutions and the perpetrators), and to intimidate and even punish the victims. The leadership’s acts to defend the perpetrators included covering their tracks while encouraging at least one of them, David Kramer, to escape from the law, by fleeing Australia to Israel.

From the press point of view, the most dramatic testimony was given by Rabbis Yosef Feldman and Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant.

Rabbi Feldman, perhaps under the impression that the best form of defence is a claim of ignorance, told the Commission that he was clueless about child protection legislation. When asked “do you know that it is illegal for an adult to touch another child’s genitals?”, Rabbi Feldman said he didn’t know that. This is a man who was responsible for educating hundreds of yioung men at Yeshiva College in Sydney. Such a claim of ignorance was either outrageous if taken at face value, or a transparent lie. Either way, the headlines were made.

Among Rabbi Feldman’s other shameful remarks was insisting that some pedophiles should be shown sympathy, particularly where they had repented and not re-offended. Whereas there is room for such sentiment in a discussion about criminal rehabilitation for sex offenders – but not when it is being proposed as a self-policing policy by a Jewish community leader in front of the Commission.

The third statement which was widely reported was that Rabbi Feldman believes that all child abuse allegations should be first reported by congregants to a rabbi, rather than directly to the police.

Although this understandably shocked non-Jewish reporters, it comes as no surprise to orthodox Jews – who recognise Rabbi Feldman’s approach from Agudat Yisrael policy statements.

Indeed, on 22nd July 2011, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote on behalf of Agudat Yisrael in Cross Currents: "Because the question of reporting has serious implications for all parties, and raises sensitive halachic issues, the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment to determine the presence or absence of raglayim la’davar. Rather, he should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halacha and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation." 

Among others giving testimony at the Commission was Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, who started by saying the right things, such as “we must be supportive of victims”, but, when cross examined, he admitted to having sent a message to a Jewish journalist, even during the current Commission proceedings, describing Zephania Waks, the father of victims’ advocate Manny Waks, as “Zephaniah is killing us,” the message read. “Zephaniah is attacking Chabad. He is a lunatic on the fringe, guilty of neglect of his own children."

Manny Waks furthermore claimed that: “Rabbi Kluwgant has been one of the leading forces behind the horrific intimidation campaign against me and my family,” Waks said.

“Until today it was difficult to prove. It has finally been exposed publicly. Rabbi Kluwgant must resign or be sacked immediately from every leadership position he currently holds. He is not fit to lead.”

The Commssion has successfully exposed the corrupt & dangerous practices of these Chabad institutions in Australia. The Commissions recommendations will make important reading.

On a personal level, this has vindicated Manny Waks and his father Zephania’s three years campaign to bring these perpetrators and their enablers to justice and account, which subjected them to backlash they received in their own community.

Unfortunately, the Chabad institutions in Melbourne & Sydney are a sampling, rather than a unique case, of how allegations of child abuse have been handled historically in many orthodox communities, and indeed other closed societies, around the world.

Although there has been dramatic progress in some orthodox comunities in just the past five years, such as in recognising abuse as a genuine problem in the orthodox community, and even a (begrudging) acknowledgement that these cases cannot and should not always be solely handled as ‘internal community issues’ - there is still considerable work to be done to ensure that justice is served for past offenses & cover-ups, and to ensure Jewish children are no more at risk of sexual abuse than non-Jewish children.

As Manny Waks has stated, the time has now come for a Jewish International Commission into child abuse, which will also examine the response to child abuse allegations in Jewish communal organizations.

Until there is a full public accounting, and appropriate consequences for those found to have perpetrated or enabled abuse, long standing and discredited policies in the Jewish orthodox world, such as those openly expounded by the Agudat Yisrael, will unfortunately continue to place children at risk.   


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