It’s time for institutional accountability for victims of child sexual abuse

On Rosh HaShanah this year, I launched my book, Who Gave You Permission?. The timing was coincidental, not deliberate – it was proposed by my publisher – but the fact that I didn’t care, is a reflection of just how little interest I have in religion these days, having seen so much hypocrisy from supposedly religious people.

A question that has been asked of me repeatedly at my book events over the past month is what it will take for me, and other victims, to be able to heal and move on with our lives. The first answer that comes to mind: accountability of those individuals and communal bodies who are responsible for what happened to us.

Why is accountability so important? Firstly, to deter people from acting the same way in future. And secondly, to deliver a measure of justice for those of us who have suffered as a result of their actions.

There can be no doubt that the sexual abuse of scores of children over decades within Chabad/Yeshivah institutions in Australia, the cover-ups, the demonisation of victims and the ongoing failure to hold to account those responsible, is the greatest tragedy in the history of the Australian Jewish community. But it is also the greatest failure of some of Australia’s other communal organisations.

It is one thing to have stood by in silence in recent years while Chabad/Yeshivah turned on us. But it is another to have actively gone out of your way to defend or endorse our tormentors and to have exacerbated our suffering. Regrettably, this was the approach of some communal organisations who have yet to be held to account.

In my book, I refer to three organisations in particular who are guilty of this.

First, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the Australian Jewish community’s national peak body, of which I was a vice president only a few years ago. In 2012, the ECAJ took it upon itself to write to the Victorian Government Inquiry into Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations to advise them that certain statements which I had made to the Inquiry were ‘scandalous’ and ‘should be disregarded by the Inquiry’. A month earlier, and at the height of the attacks against my family and I, ECAJ President Dr Danny Lamm responded to an article in the Herald Sun detailing a cover-up at Yeshivah by categorically telling ABC radio that Yeshivah were cooperating ‘in every single way with investigations’ and that having ‘spoken personally to the leadership of Yeshivah…had not encountered one single situation where a current leader or the leadership is wishing to perpetrate a cover-up’.

Both of these assertions proved to be utterly false. For the ECAJ, it was a mistake, long since forgotten by all but the victims for whom it was another dagger, compounding the terrible suffering being inflicted upon us for no reason other than that we had been sexually abused as children and were seeking to bring those responsible to justice as no one else was doing so on our behalf. For me personally, the hurt was significant. Here was the Jewish community’s most senior official, a former colleague, repeating the lies being peddled by Yeshivah on national radio and by implication, making me, as the only victim prepared to speak up, out to be a liar. This defence of Yeshivah only empowered and legitimised my critics and haters.

Second, the Melbourne-based self-proclaimed victim-support organisation, The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence (JTAFV) with all of its links to Melbourne Chabad/Yeshivah, the organisation that continues to promote itself as having provided training in responding to disclosures of abuse to several of the rabbis who disgraced themselves in the witness box at the Royal Commission.

The failures of the JTAFV over the years are many. But it was their initial public response to the scandal which set the tone for the way they have conducted themselves ever since. In July 2011, JTAFV Chair Deborah Wiener wrote a letter to the Australian Jewish News in defence of Yeshivah: ‘[i]t is easy to sensationalise such matters, but it is also worth noting that Yeshivah College is cooperating fully with the police in its current investigations’. Again, this proved to be false. Moreover, it was extraordinary that an organisation which was supposed to support victims was going out of its way to defend the very institution that facilitated our abuse, covered it up and went after us and our families.

Third, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV), whose members include several senior Yeshivah officials and who had Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant as its president in recent years. It remains the case that the only person who the RCV have ever called on to resign from their position to do with the Melbourne Chabad/Yeshivah child sexual abuse scandal, is me. And while they have apologised to me personally, they have let down many in the community and still refuse to apologise to others or to take institutional responsibility for certain egregious conduct of its past-president, as referred to in my book.

The Royal Commission into institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was supposed to be a turning point. At the very least, it should have been a wake-up call for the entire community. Although a tremendous amount has been achieved, including the beginning of major reforms in our community in this context, unfortunately for victims, whether we look at Yeshivah, the ECAJ, the JTAFV or the RCV, we are confronted with the injustice of the people and organisations responsible for terrible wrongs carrying on as though nothing ever happened, while we continue to struggle with the trauma arising from their (mis)conduct.

Go to Yeshivah on Shabbat and you’ll probably catch a sermon or shiur (a lesson) from Rabbi Zvi Telsner who continues to function as Head Rabbi for all intents and purposes. Telsner also continues to hold the prestigious role of kosher certifier, a job reserved for people of particular integrity. Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, Telsner’s brother-in-law, one of the Trustees who promised to resign in the wake of the Royal Commission, has recently effectively appointed himself as a Director of Yeshivah for life. Kluwgant continues to be employed as a shochet (kosher slaughterer), also a job reserved for particularly trustworthy and God-fearing individuals. Kluwgant also continues to lead prayer services at Yeshivah. I am resigned to the fact that some things there will never change from within and have confidence that external forces will eventually force Chabad/Yeshivah to genuinely reform, especially once the Royal Commission findings are out (expected shortly).

As far as the other organisations are concerned, there is no doubt in my mind that the ECAJ, the JTAFV and the RCV owe apologies, not just to victims, but also to the rest of the Australian Jewish community.

From the perspective of victims, we expect justice and accountability. We feel betrayed. We feel deeply hurt, not only by the scars of the abuse and cover-ups – and in some cases the years of intimidation and harassment, but also by the failure of these organisations to take responsibility for the damage that they have caused. And we ask for the support of the broader community.

Too much has been left to victims and survivors to do. To pursue justice. To hold individuals and institutions to account. To advocate for reforms. To raise awareness and educate the community. To stand up for ourselves. It should never have been our job.

It is now time for the community to hold to account those organisations that have let all of us down. As we have seen, turning a blind eye is not going to make the problem disappear.

And we can start with the ECAJ, the JTAFV and the RCV.

About the Author
Manny Waks is a consultant, advocate and public speaker. He is the founder and CEO of Kol v'Oz, and the author of 'Who Gave You Permission?'.
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