Royal commission to examine child sexual abuse within Jewish community at Melbourne hearings
The response of the Australian Jewish community to child sexual abuse will come under the spotlight as a royal commission reconvenes in Melbourne on Monday.
Several paedophiles who taught at the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne have been prosecuted, but critics say the Orthodox community has covered up persistent abuse for decades.
The organisation’s Sydney chapter, in the eastern suburb of Bondi, will also be examined by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Abuse victim Manny Waks dreamt of a royal commission years ago.
He was abused as a child at the Yeshivah College by David Cyprys, who is now in prison, and famously blew the whistle on child abuse within the Yeshivah organisation.
Mr Waks grew up in a Jewish Orthodox family of 17 children, walking distance from the Yeshivah Centre in St Kilda East.
He and his family have now left the country for a new life in Europe, “predominantly as a result of the intimidation and bullying that’s been going on against me and my family,” he said.
He flew into Melbourne on Friday for the hearings with “mixed emotions”.
“Those who were involved in the facilitating the abuse, covering up… intimidation, they’ve gotten away scot free until now,” Mr Waks said.
After supporting him in the public spotlight, Mr Waks said his parents were ex-communicated from Melbourne’s Orthodox community and moved to Israel.
They are still trying to sell the family home.
His father, Zephaniah Waks, has also made the trip back to Melbourne to be by his son’s side at the hearings.
It is the second set of public hearings in Melbourne.
The Catholic Church’s Melbourne Response to child sexual abuse came under the examination in hearings last August.
This time, the commission will consider the response of the Yeshivah Centre and Yeshivah College to allegations of child sexual abuse made against convicted paedophiles Cyprys and David Kramer, who has since been deported.
The commission will also consider allegations made against substitute teacher Aron Kestecher, who took his own life last year while waiting to go to court.
The response of the Bondi chapter of Yeshivah College in Sydney to abuse allegations made against former director Daniel Hayman will also be examined.
Victim paid a high price for speaking out
Melbourne lawyer Josh Bornstein teamed up with Manny Waks three years ago to form Tzedek (Hebrew for justice), an advocacy group for child abuse victims within the Jewish community.
Mr Waks is no longer with the group but Mr Bornstein is president.
“There should be no place in shielding criminals who cover up child abuse in the Jewish community,” Mr Bornstein said.
There should be no place in shielding criminals who cover up child abuse in the Jewish community. No religious belief or cultural practice can excuse that criminality.Josh Bornstein, president of Tzedek,
“No religious belief or cultural practice can excuse that criminality.
“Those criminals should not be shielded and victims of child sexual abuse should not be persecuted or punished any more than they already have.
“That sort of conduct is morally indefensible, it’s unacceptable and it’s extremely destructive for the Jewish community and also the victims and their families.”
Mr Bornstein said Manny Waks has paid a hefty price for being strong enough to speak out.
“Within parts of the Orthodox Jewish community there seems to be an enormous pressure and intimidation placed on people who do try and speak up,” he said.
“That’s got to stop. I hope that the royal commission focuses very carefully on those issues and if it finds there are systemic problems in the Jewish community, those problems are addressed and recommendations are made.
“The Jewish community that is involved in this situation [should] heed those recommendations.”
Mr Bornstein said he expected the hearing to be closely followed overseas.
“Clearly there’s an issue in the Jewish Orthodox community, in parts of it at least,” he said.
“It’s not just a problem in Australia, it’s also a problem in other parts of the world, including the US.
“The same sort of patterns are evident, the difficulty is people are adhering to religious or cultural norms and effectively trying to opt out of the criminal law.”
‘Bad blood on both sides’ of Jewish community
The Australian Jewish News, based in Elsternwick, will also be closely watching the commission hearings.
The weekly community publication has a circulation of 15,000 in Melbourne and Sydney, and has covered the issue over many years.
“I think there are a lot of people who hope it’ll be a watershed moment,” said Zeddy Lawrence, the national editor of the newspaper.
“Over the last few years there have been lots of allegations and recriminations within the community.
“There’s been a lot of bad blood on both sides and I think there is a hope that this’ll be a chance for people to publicly air their grievances and maybe take a step forward, learn the lessons of the past and build for the future.”
Mr Lawrence said there was no doubt the issue had caused considerable divisions in the Jewish community.
“There were victims I think, who feel that people in authority at the time the crimes were committed, who could and should have done more,” he said.
“There’s a feeling that some of those people are actually still in position of responsibility today and haven’t owned up to or apologised for their role in covering up crimes that were committed.
There’s been a lot of bad blood on both sides and I think there is a hope that this’ll be a chance for people to publicly air their grievances and maybe take a step forward, learn the lessons of the past and build for the future.Zeddy Lawrence, national editor of The Australian Jewish News
On the other side, he said, there is also a view that what happened in the past should stay in the past.
“There were mistakes that were made and there are one or two victims now who are in effect conducting a witch-hunt… they feel in a sense that lessons have been learned… that the victims are now trying to destroy those institutions,” Mr Lawrence said.
“Whereas the victims would claim no, we only want justice, and we want to know that our children and our children’s children are safe in the future.”
Mr Lawrence said it had not always been easy covering the issue in the newspaper’s own backyard.
“It has been very trying,” he said.
“Because as much as we’re a regular newspaper, we’re also a community newspaper and we want people to feel good about the Jewish community.”
In a statement, the Yeshivah Centre said it was confident the royal commission process would “serve to strengthen appropriate institutional response to child abuse and management of child protection”.
“The Yeshivah Centre will offer whatever assistance it can and work with the commission to achieve this outcome,” the statement said.
“As the commission will begin proceedings shortly, it is inappropriate to comment further.
“The Yeshivah Centre will make no further comments while the commission is in session and I look forward to the findings and recommendations of the commission.”
The president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, will also give evidence at the two-week hearing.