SYDNEY, Australia – A week from hell. That’s how dark these past seven days have been for the Australian Jewish community. The hearings at the Royal Commission into the child sexual abuse scandal have been suffused with acrimony and accusations, tragedy and trauma.
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Unsurprisingly, the damning testimonies and explosive admissions have fuelled a barrage of bad publicity – in print, on radio, TV and online, where details of the sordid scandal are being streamed live.
The government-sponsored commission is probing how leaders of Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre and its Sydney counterpart responded to multiple claims of sexual abuse at both Chabad institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. David Cyprys and David Kramer, former employees at Yeshivah in Melbourne, were convicted and jailed in 2013; Daniel “Gug” Hayman, a one-time director of Sydney’s Yeshiva, was convicted in 2014 with a suspended sentence.
If you missed the first week of the two-week commission, here are the horrific headlines, and the fallout:
Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, a Chabad rabbi in Sydney who has campaigned for the victims, accused a senior rabbi at Yeshiva in Sydney in the 1980s of being a liar and described those involved as “bastards” with “blood on their hands.”
“I’m prepared to say that Rabbi [Boruch] Lesches lied when he said that he didn’t know about the abuse,” Gutnick told the commission last week. Lesches, who now lives in America, was a senior official at Chabad’s headquarters in Sydney at the time of the abuse. It is understood he will not appear before the commission despite attempts by Australian officials to bring him in.
“People say that everything that will come out is a hilul hashem (desecration of God’s name) – I say the hilul hashem is if it doesn’t come out,” Gutnick wrote in an email to one of the victims that was read out at the hearing. “These guys are all bastards. They all have blood on their hands.”
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry described statements at the hearings by Rabbi Yossi Feldman, of Chabad in Sydney, as “repugnant to Jewish values” and called his position “untenable” after Feldman made several admissions to the commission, including that reformed pedophiles are not a threat to society and that the law should be lenient on pedophiles who have refrained from abusing children for decades.
“It is unacceptable for any religious leader to confess ignorance of basic law relating to the crime of child sexual abuse or to suggest that there are circumstances in which instances of such abuse should not be reported to the authorities,” said president Robert Goot in a statement. “Nobody should take the law into their own hands, or be encouraged to do so. We believe his position as a religious leader has become untenable.”
Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Melbourne’s largest Jewish school, called on senior officials to stand down shortly after the first week of hearings ended. “While anyone who held a position of leadership in the Yeshivah community in the period when these terrible mistakes were made remains in such a position today, the community is not able to say that it has learnt and it has changed,” Kennard posted on Facebook. “The resignations that are required need not be an acceptance of personal responsibility, but an acknowledgement that if abuse, or a failure to deal properly with abusers, took place on an individual’s ‘watch’ then it is honourable and right for such an individual to step down.”
In his post, Kennard also revealed that he resigned from the Rabbinical Council of Victoria in 2013 in protest over its silence following the conviction of Cyprys.
Victims and family members relived their trauma, some fighting back tears, others unable to. “As a spouse of a victim and whistle-blower, I feel hated and isolated,” one woman said. “I have lost faith in the leadership of the Jewish community.”
One of the victims of David Cyprys told the Commission, “Even with medication I still think about suicide to the point that it is almost a part of me.”
Another victim, who was abused by Cyprys in Melbourne and Hayman in Sydney, said, “I remember thinking of the cliff nearby and I want to die.”
Australian Jews vented their anger, especially on social media.
“The community is not able to say that it has learnt and it has changed,” wrote Miriam Farkas on Facebook. “Unfortunately, the community do not have a voice, as the Yeshivah Center is run as a dictatorship and do not have democratic elections.”
Another wrote, “Watching the Royal Commission unfolding online has been harrowing, to say the least. The inaction and lack of remorse by some (so-called) ‘rabbis’ has, tragically, cast a dark cloud over our entire community.”
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The bad news is unlikely to get better, with senior figures at Chabad in Melbourne due to appear later this week, including Rabbi Avrohom Glick, principal of Yeshivah College when Cyprys and Kramer committed their crimes.