Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Final Day – Rabbi Zvi Telsner

By Henry Benjamin (J-Wire)
February 13, 2015

The final day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse  saw Rabbi Zvi Telsner complete his evidence followed by appearances by Rabbi Glasman, Rabbi Kluwgant and Rabbi Smukler.

During the course of his testimony Rabbi Telsner expressed his view that gays and pedophiles could be cured.

The following is the evidence under questioning by Christine Hanscombe

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: Do you accept the proposition that pedophiles can be for want of a better word cured by counselling and spiritual guidance?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: There is a possibility. I am not an expert in the field. I suspect there may be a small percentage possibility. I can’t really say.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: It  would appear that Rabbi Groner held the view that some form of spiritual care might cure David Cyprys. Is that an issue that you know anything about Rabbi Groner considering.

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: You said about spiritual care. What do you mean about spiritual care?

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: I find myself lost for words not being of your faith. When a senior rabbi says about a pedophile “I thought we had cured him” what would you take that to mean?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: It would mean he was sent to professional care. It had nothing to with anything spiritual…either therapy, psychiatrist or..nothing to with anything spiritual.Rabbi Groner would send to a school psychologist It had nothing to do with anything spiritual.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: Do you know of anybody accused of abusing children being sent for such medical care by Rabbi Groner?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: I do

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CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: Curing pedophiles. Do you believe that’s a possibility?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: I don’t want to use the word ‘possibility’. It can happen. Let me just say that.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: Do you know that of your own experience?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: Umm…not really.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: So you believe it?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: There is a certain belief that if someone for example after 20 or 25 years has not committed any offences and all of this time has gone to therapy there would be a good possibility that the person may have been able to change his way of life.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE:  And do you have same belief of homosexual persons not attracted to children?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: I really couldn’t tell you a definite answer. I don’t know.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: Do you distinguish between those two classes of persons in your evidence as to whether a person can be cured by therapy so the answer is yes, you do distinguish.

RABBI ZVI TELSNER:  No I would say the same thing could happen with someone who is gay, I suspect.

CHRISTINE HANSCOMBE: So you think both those classes of persons can be cured by therapy?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: There is a possibility – I am not discounting that.

Counsel assisting the Commission focused on a sermon delivered by Rabbi Zvi Telsner, spiritual leader of Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre delivered within ten days of an article published in The Age on July 8, 2011 in which whistleblower Manny Waks reported his abuse  and his suggestion that the Yeshivah Centre had covered up child sexual abuse in the past.

Ms Gerace said that in his sermon Rabbi Telsner was warning his congregation  against “doing a certain type of conduct you are telling them do not this unless you have the permission of a rabbi to do it”. She asked him “What is the evil that you are warning them against?” Rabbi Telsner responded: “Spreading false rumours or degradations of people and institutions in these blogs, emails and anonymous websites.” He agreed that the rumours had been directed towards the Yeshiva and “the legacy of the late Rabbi Groner.”

When asked by Ms Gerace if there had been a suggestion that there had been a failure by the Yeshivah Centre to act on complaints of sex abuse Rabbi Telsner responded : I don’t understand the question.”

Ms Gerace said: “Connected with that, the suggestion in this material that complaints had been made of sexual abuse at the time of Rabbi David Groner and he had not acted on it or  had covered it up.” The late Rabbi Groner had been the head of the Yeshivah.

The line of questioning was dealing with two sermons delivered by Rabbi Telsner during a period when a spate of emails was doing the rounds following both the Waks article and

Ms Gerace indicated that the Yeshivah culture was changing in 2011 referring to the days when it was under the control of Rabbi Groner saying “there had been a great degree of deference paid to him where people often deferred to what he said and would have not acted in any way to go to the press or to send emails without asking him first.”

Rabbi Telsner agreed there had been calls to run the Shul more democratically.

But he said he did not see the connection between a sermon he delivered about spies causing the Jewish people to spend 40 years  in the desert and an email sent the day before the sermon by abuse victim AVB telling community members to go to the police with any information on child sex abuse. This sermon was delivered before the Waks article appeared in The Age.

Ms Gerace said that in the article “he wants to hold to account the alleged perpetrators f the crimes and the Yeshivah Centre which runs the college and which he says betrays victims by persuading them to remain silent.”

Rabbi Telsner said he did not remember admitting that this was the basis of the Loshon Hora he referred to in his sermon following the revelations in The Age.

Quoting from the article, Ms Gerace said: ” ‘Yeshivah College which did not report the complains to police was accused of covering up the scandal’ and there’s the Loshon Hora about the institution and he actually names  your father-in-law.” Rabbi Zvi Telsner is a son-in-law of the late Rabbi Groner.

Ms Gerace further quoted from the Age article on Manny Waks. Reading from the article Ms Gerace said that Mr Waks made his first statement to police in 1996. He also told Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner Yeshivah Centre Director. In 2000 after returning to Australia Mr Waks was shocked to see his alleged abuser was still in a position of authority at the Yeshivah Centre.

Waks is quoted as saying:  “I said to Rabbi Groner how can you give this person access to children. Rabbi Groner pleaded with me not to take it further. He said to me that the alleged perpetrator was getting help from a psychiatrist. I said ‘Can you guarantee me he will not reoffend?’ Rabbi Groner said no and that’s when I walked out. In my attempt to seek justice and closure I was working against an entrenched culture and system of covering up these crimes at any cost.”

Reverting to the sermons Ms Gerace asked Rabbi Telsner if he knew that victim AVB believed that Rabbi Telsner was preaching against him. He responded: “Every person is entitled to their opinion.”

Ms Gerace told Rabbi Telsner that having made no statement denying his sermons targeted Manny Waks, Zephaniah Waks and victim AVB, saying “you stood by and let them fester” adding  that it had been ” a particularly cruel position for you to have adopted Rabbi when you know very well that AVB and Manny Waks and Zephaniah Waks’s family suffered ostracisation in the wake of your sermons.”

Rabbi Telsner responded saying: “I don’t believe it was in the wake of my sermons and if any of my sermons caused them to believe that I apologise profusely and regret that anyone took that message that I was meaning them.”

Counsel for Manny and Zephaniah Waks Melinda Richards said that Rabbi Groner’s role in not reporting instances of child sex abuse to authorities in effect “allowing it to continue so that other children became victims.” Rabbi Telsner replied: “Correct.” He said he understood to him that an email to him as Chief Rabbi of the Centre from Zephaniah Waks, father of victim Manny Waks, was “a cry for help”.  Ms Richards said that this email for help was sent during the week before Rabbi Telsner’s sermon which criticised people who spoke without permission and that the worst sin was “besmirching the name of Rabbi Groner.”

He agreed with a statement that Rabbi Groner had known about sexual abuse in 1986 and not acted causing one of the victims to have assumed guilt and that that guilt belonged to the community.

ROMY VAN DER WEIL: If I said to you now that the late Rabbi Yitzchok Groner and I accept that he was a warm and creative and a wonderful human being was negligent in terms of his care of children would you regard that as a Loshen Hora?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: Yes

ROMY VAN DER WEIL: “Why”

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: Because he wasn’t. He was a person  who cared and gave his life for every single child that I know of.

ROMY VAN DER WEIL: You see the difficulty then for people to come forward to say during his period of reign at the school and his reign over the community, these things happened to me and he was to some degree complicit in it…do you say that’s a Loshen Hora?

RABBI ZVI TELSNER: If you say he was complicit in it, you could infer that.  What I would say he was trying he best  and at that stage and he may he was doing his duty.

Rabbi Telsner agreed when asked if he had shunned Zephaniah Waks by relegating him to a side room in his synagogue for aliyahs and not permitting him to have one in the main synagogue.

At the end of his testimony Rabbi Telsner delivered another apology saying: “I deeply regret that I should have come out publicly with more statements to the effect of feeling the pain and the difficulties the families are going through.”

Ms Garace asked him: “And do you think in addition to the apology if it is accepted by those persons harmed by your failures there should be some measure of recompense or other action by you in terms of T’Shuvah.”

Rabbi Zvi Telsner responded: “Yes”.