Child sex abuse and the community: For lessons in what not to do, look at Australia

By Danny Ben-Moshe (The Jewish Chronicle)
May 21, 2015

When Manny Waks went public in 2011 with the revelation that he was a victim of child sex abuse in Melbourne's Chabad Yeshiva, he could not have foreseen the consequences: three court cases and convictions of paedophiles, including one extradition; a Royal Commission hearing into actions of the Yeshiva; the resignation of senior rabbis; and parents in the Chabad community seeking a new governance structure for their school.

Four years on, the tragic Australian experience remains a constantly unfolding story that continues to make the headlines. Rabbis and other Yeshiva stalwarts still cling to their posts, victims of abuse and their families continue to be shunned, and the Yeshiva now faces civil class action and, potentially, criminal prosecution.

As Britain confronts its own Orthodox child sex abuse case, what are the lessons from Australia?

Firstly, deal with the issue from the outset. Waks went to the Yeshiva leadership on several occasions in private, but they declined to deal with this matter. That was the first of their many mistakes - the Yeshiva leadership dug itself into a deep hole as it prioritised the institution over the individual.

Secondly, the rabbinate cannot be expected to govern itself. In Melbourne, nominally community-wide rabbinical councils, such as the Rabbinical Council of Victoria and the Organisation of Rabbis of Australia, were stacked with Chabad rabbis, unprepared to act against the institution they were affiliated to, and unwilling to act against the individuals involved in the cover-up that some were personally related to. Concomitantly, within the Chabad Yeshiva community, the absence of proper governance structures and accountability created an environment in which cover-ups occurred. Only now that the Royal Commission exposed this are rabbinical structures in Australia being reviewed and members of the Chabad community seeking proper governance of their own institution.

Thirdly, statements need to be backed by deeds. Rabbinical organisations issued statements in Australia that mesirah - the notion that a Jews does not turn a Jew over to the non-Jewish authorities - does not apply in cases of child abuse, but in practice this has remained a widespread attitude. Medieval-style shunning based on mesirah is a reality for Orthodox victims and their families, who report their abuse to the police only to find that it leads to their ostracisation.

Fourth, create an environment where victims feel safe to come forward. Police can only take action if victims speak out, but many are reluctant. Many are afraid of facing a trial in which they have to re-live their ordeal, of confronting their abusers and, for the Orthodox, of being shunned. Every rabbi and lay leader needs to shout from the rooftops that victims should go to the police, and anyone who stops them will be shunned.

Fifth, for a long time, critics of Waks blamed his family - "they were rotten eggs" - until the Royal Commission showed that it was not just Manny who was a victim, and it was not just his family that was being shunned. It is the perpetrators and those who protect them who are culpable.

Having heard hours of victims' testimony, I see that in many cases their anger is greater towards the institution that covered up the abuse than their actual perpetrators. "Criminals commit crimes, but rabbis should know better". When Waks first went to the Yeshiva, many actions could have been taken: they could have said sorry, offered counseling, removed rabbis and officials involved in the cover-up. Had they done so, the process would have been less painful for all.

Last week, a Chabad official told me that they were taking action, but that change takes time. The Australian experience shows that this issue cannot wait for concerted action. If organisations are serious about this problem, they need to have rigorous independent inquiries and publish their findings as soon as they become aware of even one case. Yeshiva in Australia has avoided that until this day, to their detriment and detriment of the wider Jewish community.

Danny Ben-Moshe is the director of the award-winning documentary, 'Code of Silence'. www.identity-films.com