Nov 29, 2016

Jewish communities discouraged survivors from reporting child abuse, commission finds

Royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

Report finds those who reported abuse at Yeshiva Bondi and Yeshivah Melbourne were often met with disapproval or treated as outcasts.

Christopher Knaus
The Guardian
29 November 2016

A strict adherence to Jewish law led two ultra-Orthodox communities to treat child abuse survivors as outcasts and discouraged them from contacting secular authorities, the royal commission has found.

On Tuesday the commission released its report on Yeshiva Bondi and Yeshivah Melbourne, two communities belonging to the Chabad-Lubavitch orthodox movement of Judaism.

Chabad communities imposed on their members a strict adherence to orthodox practices and laws, encouraging modesty and gender segregation, while discouraging contact with non-Jews or any discussion of sex, the commission found.

Rabbis were found to have discouraged members from coming forward about abuse and a number resigned during last year’s commission hearing.

The royal commission examined how both communities responded to abuse complaints against David Cyprys, David Kramer and Aron Kestecher in Melbourne, and Daniel Hayman in Bondi.

Chabad-Lubavitch communities required disputes to be handled internally according to Jewish law rather than secular Australian law, the commission found.

Members were prohibited from informing on one another to secular authorities and discouraged from speaking negatively about others in the community, even if what they said was true, the report found.

The royal commission found that these practices greatly affected the handling of child abuse complaints.

“The evidence strongly suggests that, because of the way those concepts were applied, some members of those communities were discouraged from reporting child sexual abuse,” the commission found. “We heard evidence that some members of the communities believed that those who were understood to have communicated about child sexual abuse were acting outside the bounds of acceptable halachic conduct (that is, they were sinning).”

Those who reported abuse were often met with disapproval or treated as outcasts once they had reported their experiences, the commission said.

Reporting abuse would hurt the marriage prospects of children and publicly calling for people or institutions to be held to account for failings was considered a sin. Sinners would then be shunned socially, economically or religiously.

The royal commission heard from four survivors, including those who were abused in synagogues and ritual bathhouses.

One survivor, Manny Waks, was abused by two adults in the Melbourne community for years, including his martial arts teacher Cyprys, who was eventually convicted in 2013.

Waks was bullied and tormented when he first told a fellow student of his abuse and later, as a teenager, rejected his religion, struggled with feelings of helplessness and despair, and turned to alcohol.

Years later, Waks told his father and they went to Victoria police, who investigated his complaints but did not lay charges.

He said during the hearings he also told Yeshivah Melbourne’s rabbi, David Groner, who allegedly instructed him to “do nothing” because Cyprys was being dealt with. Waks went public about his treatment 15 years later, the first time anyone had spoken out about abuse within the community.

Yeshivah Melbourne has since apologised for “any historical wrongs that may have occurred” in a 2012 letter. It has encouraged its members to report any allegation of child abuse to authorities.

Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, the leader of Yeshiva Bondi, has also apologised to children that the community had failed.

At the commission’s public hearing last year, Feldman vowed “to do everything in our power both to protect the children in our care and to support those who have suffered”.

“I would like to now publicly state as not just a position of Jewish law but the official policy of the Chabad movement in New South Wales: the reporting of cases of abuse to the authorities is not just ‘permitted’ but an ‘obligation’, a holy obligation that will keep our children safer and our communities healthier,” he said.

The royal commission found the Melbourne community has taken significant steps to improve its child protection policies and procedures but said evidence of the response in Bondi was less clear.

Waks issued a statement on Tuesday evening welcoming the commission’s findings, describing them as complete vindication for him and other survivors.

The commission’s report made clear the “abhorrent, hypocritical, and irreligious” treatment of victims, their families and supporters, Waks said.

He called for an unequivocal personal apology to his family, who the royal commission found had been made secondary victims through their treatment.

“Until all of this occurs, any statements of regret or promises of change on behalf of Yeshivah do not reflect the reality on the ground,” he said. “I thank the royal commission for completely vindicating the actions of myself and other victims and holding Yeshivah and its leadership to account.”

Both communities will be examined again in a second inquiry in March next year.

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