Rabbi denies sermons targeted abuse victims
ELIZABETH JACKSON: At the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse the head rabbi of Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre has denied preaching against victims reporting their abuse to police.
But Rabbi Zvi Telsner says he apologises if he caused any victim or their family pain.
Victims have told the royal commission that they and their families were ostracised by the Yeshivah leadership and community after reporting their abuse to police.
Our reporter Samantha Donovan is covering the royal commission in Melbourne and she joins us now.
Sam, what exactly did the rabbi say in these sermons?
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Well, to explain the lead-up Elizabeth, in 2011 a furore erupted in Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox Jewish Yeshivah community when a victim of child sex abuse at Yeshivah College, Manny Waks, went public with allegations that several boys including himself had been abused at the school.
And he alleged to a newspaper that the Yeshivah leadership had covered it up and named Yeshivah’s head rabbi, Rabbi Groner, as having done nothing to remove a serial abuser from the school.
Manny Waks and another witness, AVB, have told the royal commission that they urged other victims to go to the police and that this angered Rabbi Groner’s brother-in-law, Zvi Telsner, who by this time had taken over as head rabbi after Rabbi Groner’s death.
They’ve told the commission that Rabbi Telsner delivered two sermons which they took to be condemning them. He asked in one sermon ‘who gave you permission to speak without speaking to a rabbi?’ He said that the worst sin was besmirching the name of Rabbi Groner and in another sermon he likened them, they believed, to the spies who led the Jews, led to them spending another 40 years in the desert which is, we’ve heard, a devastating insult for a Jewish person.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: How did he explain those comments?
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Well, he denied very strongly this morning that they were a reaction to Manny Waks going to the media and his allegations. He said that when he was referring to who gave you permission to speak without talking to a rabbi first, he said he was in fact referring to community members who were sending emails and writing blogs about the Yeshiva Centre and Rabbi Groner after these allegations came out.
He said he wasn’t attacking the victim AVB who’d emailed members of the Yeshiva community urging them to report the abuse to police and pointed out, and pointing out that it wasn’t necessary to get a rabbi’s permission to do so.
But Counsel Assisting the royal commission, Maria Gerace, hasn’t accepted Rabbi Telsner’s explanation.
MARIA GERACE: And you know, don’t you, that on repeated occasions you’ve been approached in relation to those sermons, haven’t you? Yes?
ZVI TELSNER: Not that often that I can remember.
MARIA GERACE: Not that often? You don’t know that people complained to the Yeshivah Centre about those sermons or do you?
ZVI TELSNER: At that period of time everyone was upset.
MARIA GERACE: Yes, people did complain, didn’t they?
ZVI TELSNER: Yes, yes.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: That’s Counsel Assisting Maria Gerace in Melbourne a little earlier this morning.
Sam, the commission I believe has heard about the effect that Rabbi Telsner’s comments have had on the families of the victims. What did they have to say to the commission?
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Well, they’ve told the royal commission that they were shunned by the Yeshivah community after they reported their abuse, both by senior rabbis but also members of the community. They were no longer invited to people’s homes, they were abused both in person and online and they’ve said that the sermons just made the whole situation worse.
Zephaniah Waks, who is Manny Waks’ father, has also given evidence about how the synagogue refused to give him honours that he was entitled to at services when all this was unfolding.
AVB we’ve heard has stayed in the community. He’s still very much a part of the orthodox Chabad community in Melbourne but he still says he feels completely ostracised.
The Waks family have actually moved overseas because they couldn’t treat, or tolerate their treatment any longer.
Rabbi Telsner has this morning admitted that he stood by and let this ostracism and victimisation happen. He’s acknowledged that he let it fester and accepted that he was complicit in the shunning by members of the community and he has offered what he says is a very sincere apology for not speaking up and doing more.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Are the hearings ongoing?
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: They’ve been going for two weeks, Elizabeth, and due to finish this afternoon but it really has been a battle to get all the witnesses in. We’ve still got three witnesses to be heard, one of whom has just started giving his evidence.
Interestingly, this has apparently been the largest audience following this royal commission hearing online. There have been more than 20 case studies, more than 20 public hearings now for the royal commission and this one’s generated huge interest within Australia’s Jewish community and also we’ve heard the Chabad community overseas.
So the plan is that the hearings will finish on this case study this afternoon. There is apparently a chance that the hearings will need to be adjourned to fit all those witnesses in and we may hear from them in coming weeks.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Samantha Donovan in Melbourne, thank you.