Nowhere Left to Hide

by Malki Rose (Galus Australis)
July 5, 2011

Perhaps the single most distressing thing about the David Kramer case, is not how many Yeshiva College students he preyed upon, or that he was quietly shipped out of Yeshiva and sent packing to the USA to strike again, but the fact that it took a shocking 18 years for issue to truly come to light and Victoria Police attention.

Those not affiliated with Chabad or Yeshiva continue to be mortified at its handling of the situation

Some of us in the Yeshiva/Beth Rivkah community ourselves in secondary school at the time had varying degrees of awareness of David Kramer, but others also an awareness of what was transpiring with our Yeshiva counterparts.

For some reason the early years of secondary school seemed to be plagued with incidents of sexual predators near and around our quaint school community.

The first incident in my memory was in year eight. Our first floor classroom window looked out over Balaclava Road and for some time our Jewish studies class was interrupted by peels of laughter from those who had happened to be staring out the window at the man in the flats across the road who made it a regular hobby of his to stand at his window and expose himself to onlooking students. Our teacher would advise us to stop laughing and "grow up". When it continued to go on we were advised to "ignore it".

In the next few years our class, our school, and our community would unfortunately come to be shaken by several other far more serious and terrifying incidents of sexual predatory behaviour, not just involving those of Yeshiva Beth Rivkah but also the Adass and Beth HaTalmud community and the Yavneh Mizrachi community. Some of the incidents involved predatory strangers and some of them involved known individuals in our community, people who prayed in our synagogues, but preyed on our children.

How did we know this? Simply because victims spoke up. Initially.

And those who had been preyed upon by strange 'park paedophiles' in Greenmeadows Park or the "guy with the red car who parked on Springfield avenue".... those kids, they were the lucky ones.

Their reports and their complaints could be handed to their teachers, to their parents, to community leaders, and of course to the police and were publicised and dealt with as soon as was practical and in the strongest possible terms.

These external predators would not be allowed to get away with their preying on Jewish kids.

But these kids were not in the majority.

The majority were kids who were trapped. Trapped because no sooner had they found the courage to mention to a friend, teacher or counsellor, than were they summarily doubted.

They would find the courage to finally explain to someone why they had not been at school, why they were falling asleep in classes, why they had been slitting their wrists or why they just didn't want to go home. The counsellors would always, to their credit take these matters seriously. But it would take little more than a flippant denial from the alleged predator or a remark from someone high up in the community that the child had an "active imagination" or was just "crying for attention" to put the matter to rest.

These predators are people in positions of responsibility in our community, within the walls we ironically build to keep danger out.

Most of these cases have never been reported to the police. They were briefly "dealt with" internally and then never spoken of again. Neither the predators nor the victims have ever seen a day of justice, while the pain lingers, forever affecting every day of their lives, their relationships, careers, and functioning. These children have grown into fractured adults and the predators continue to deceive the outside world. Nothing has been learned.

In 2008 when the case of Malka Leifer, the principal of Adass, came to media attention, the shame it brought to the community was not because we had an alleged predator in our midst. (To paraphrase the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 'the Jewish community is not different') Rather the abhorrent shame was in the management of the situation. To pack a suspected child predator onto a plane, (not for the first time in our community) laden with community funding and send them off to a place where they can continue to harm others, reeks of a kind of evil that it is hard to imagine even exists.

Those outside of the Adass community shook their heads. Just as with the Kramer case.

It is one kind of evil to be a human being who inflicts harm on a child, but it is an altogether different and possibly worse kind of evil to facilitate and enable the predator. So far our community has demonstrated that it is more than capable of both.

But this is not a problem of the Adass community, nor of the Yeshiva community. It is not even limited to the Orthodox community and certainly not to the Jewish community.

This issue is the significant and burdensome responsibility of the entire community. A responsibility which too many have shirked as that of "the other" for far too long.

For many years the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence (JTAFV), which has sought to involve the community at every level in taking responsibility, has been working hard to develop new programs to protect victims of abuse in all its forms.

JTAFV director Sheiny New advised "after many intensive development seminars with overseas and local specialists, we have created and now implemented an education programme for schools; something which we are encouraging all the schools integrate into their curriculum which can help equip the children, in an age appropriate, non-alarmist way, with the information and skills they need to protect themselves from sexual predators. So far it has been introduced successfully in several schools and we've had a great response."

It is understood that not all the Jewish schools have been willing to introduce the program.

But the two greatest obstacles to protecting our children appear to be the demonising or doubting of the child, and allowing the reputations of notable community members to precede the rights of the child.

The predators so far have won. They are predominantly individuals of standing, people who are known and who hold positions of responsibility in our community, people who have the respect of our leaders.

This is the single greatest threat to our children's safety. How can even the bravest young person find the courage to come out and say that one of these individuals are harming them? Who would believe them?

Detective Scott Dwyer of the Victoria Police remarked "People in positions of responsibility or power who abuse are often the most insidious. Their power over people, over children, means they can be even more dangerous and they have the ability to cause a lot more harm".

If a predator is a rabbi, a therapist, a teacher or a leader, then we trust them. They hold the lives of so many in their hands and can manipulate them to their advantage.

So many victims would not dare speak out, believing that their story or complaint would never be believed over that of someone with a good reputation or strong standing in the Jewish or greater community.

Aside from the issue of reputation, victims also worry that nobody will believe them because the person they are naming "Is so lovely", or "Such an active member of the community", or "Someone everyone trusts implicitly".

Parents and carers need to be aware that predators more often than not are warm, charismatic, and well-liked individuals. Rarely do they have teeth hanging out of their heads and "something dodgy about them". They are almost always "not someone you would suspect".

It has been 18 years since Kramer was sent packing and now for the first time in our communities history, the police are finally involved.

His victims can breath a sigh of relief that justice is and will continue to be served.

But what if something had been done many years ago, what if the school authorities had seen fit to confront the problem instead of handballing it to the USA where Kramer could victimise more children?

What have we learnt from the Kramer case? Or indeed from the non-existent Leifer case? That the only reason the Kramer case exists is because someone stepped forward.

Leifer's name and whereabouts are known, there is no reason she could not be extradited to Australia tomorrow. But there is no complaint. Nobody will step forward because nobody wants to soil their reputation or that of their family.

Instead people would prefer to live comfortably with the knowledge that the person who abused them or their child is somewhere else, abusing someone else's children and ruining other lives. But not theirs.

Since the story of Kramer broke in the Australian media some two weeks ago, the Victorian Police have announced that they are seeking any and all information from anyone who may have also been a victim of Kramer, so that they may be able to prosecute him in Australia should he be granted parole in April next year. This is fantastic.

But more importantly, the Police are also seeking information regarding other predators or other incidents that have not been dealt with to date.

A notice from the Victoria Police has been distributed throughout the Jewish community, including on websites and blogs, through email lists, letterbox drops and of course via the Yeshiva mailing system.

In writing this article 11 different people were spoken with, who have stated that they have claims or are victims of or witnesses to molestation. Every single one of them insisted on not being named. Only two of them are currently working with the police to bring in the perpetrators. The other nine (three of which are rethinking the prospect of filing a report) feel that nothing will be done and that they will not be believed; some also felt that coming forward poses too many risks to their family.

Maintaining a cone of silence only means providing a thick cloak of protection under which predators can hide, safe in the knowledge that nobody would dare ever step forward and name them.

But luckily this is no longer the case.

Detective Dwyer has advised that people in the Jewish community are at long last coming forward and that every single complaint is being treated with the utmost seriousness, confidentiality, and respect.

"At the moment we have 15 separate cases being investigated. In addition to this, we also have several other names that have been nominated as potential sexual predators, with limited information and we will be making further enquiries into those individuals as well."

The Rabbinical Council of Victoria has instructed the community to co-operate wherever possible with the police and Rabbi Telsner has also reassured members of the Yeshiva community in a recent address that cases such as this do not fall into the category of mesira and that people should come forward to assist police wherever possible.

This is not a unique problem, not a religious problem, and not a problem of the corrupt outside world. It is an all too common universal problem. Not one person can say it is "Not my problem" or "Did you hear what happened in that community?"

Parents, victims or other witnesses who are afraid to come forward and make a report need to ask themselves this tough question.

If I, or my child, were to be in the presence of this individual and someone knew but did not tell me that they were a known sexual predator... how would this make me feel? Moreover, how would I feel once I found out the hard way? And how do I live with myself knowing that this could have been prevented had I have spoken up?

Let it not take another 18 years to bring to trial current predators living in our midst.

For related content, see David Werdiger's article on stigma.

If you or anyone you know has information regarding a sexual assault, recent or not, we urge those with information to please either contact crimestoppers on 1800 333 00, or contact Detective Scott Dwyer at the Moorabbin Sexual Offences Unit directly on 9556 6128 or mobile 0414 181 311.