Maccabi Australia Under Fire in Sex Abuse Case

Former girls’ basketball coach was sentenced last week to prison for sex crimes, some of them committed during a Maccabi overseas tour.

Australian child sex abuse victims have accused senior Maccabi Australia officials of failing to support them, provide counseling or acknowledge their plight in a scandal that has rocked the local community.

Shannon Francis, 37, coach of a Maccabi junior girls’ basketball team in 1999 and 2000, was last week sentenced to a minimum non-parole period of five and a half years for sex crimes, including sexual penetration with a minor. Francis is not Jewish.

After the sentencing, County Court of Victoria judge Meryl Sexton lifted the gag order that had prevented media from naming Maccabi in the case. At least two of Francis’ victims are Jewish and it is understood that some of his crimes were perpetrated during a Maccabi tour overseas.

Maccabi Australia is the local affiliate of the world-wide Jewish sporting organization. Its website describes it as the “largest Jewish grass-roots organisation in Australia, boasting an 85-year heritage, 35,000 supporters and 9,000 members ranging in age from 5 to 85 years across over 50 clubs.”

Senior Maccabi officials – some of whom were allegedly informed of the abuse in 2000 and again when the allegations resurfaced in 2011 – are under mounting pressure to explain why they reportedly failed to act.

Lisa Borowick, the current Maccabi Australia president, last week acknowledged “the complaints of [Maccabi’s] handling of this matter.” She said in a statement that “Maccabi recognizes the distress of the victims in this matter. If our behaviors as an organization and as officials were felt to be uncaring and insensitive, we unreservedly apologize. This was never the intent or the sentiment within Maccabi.”

But one of the victims described Maccabi’s apology as “quite offensive,” and said she took “particular objection” to Maccabi’s claim that it had not received “any official notification” that Maccabi members were involved in the scandal.

Speaking to Haaretz on condition of anonymity, she said: “Even after we initiated contact, a high-profile member of Maccabi Australia continued to deny Maccabi’s involvement, stating that it was ‘not a Maccabi issue’ and that he ‘never wanted to talk about the case’.”

She added: “If he had been responsible and done something [during the overseas trip] then nothing would have happened afterward. Throughout the court proceedings, Maccabi has continuously avoided the issue, denied responsibility and provided little support.”

In a letter to Maccabi Australia board members in December 2012, the victims accused officials of “an ongoing cover-up.” “Maccabi can no longer stick its head in the sand in the hope the matter will go away,” the victims wrote. “Those who were responsible need to explain themselves openly and honestly and be held to full account.”

The girls, who were between 14 and 16 at the time of the crimes, added they felt “somewhat betrayed” that the suppression order they requested had protected Maccabi’s name but “nobody from Maccabi bothered to help protect us or support us.”

Although they said they were “generally content” with the way the Maccabi basketball club officials dealt with the crisis in 2000, they added: “Our anxiety and distress has been further compounded by the lack of support, acknowledgment, sensitivity and compassion from Maccabi with regards to this matter.”

Several high-ranking Maccabi officials contacted by Haaretz this week claimed they knew nothing of the scandal. Tom Goldman, Maccabi Australia president from 1996-1999 and one of only six life members of the organization, said he had “absolutely no recollection of it.” Harry Procel, who was president between 2006-2011 and headed the Australian delegation to the Maccabiah last month, declined to comment, referring to Borowick’s official statement.
But one senior Maccabi official told Haaretz: “It wouldn’t shock me if there was lack of compassion. It is a bit of a boys’ club.”

Asked to respond to allegations that those who knew failed to report the allegations and failed to stop further abuse against the girls, a Maccabi Australia spokesperson told Haaretz it “refutes all allegations” and stands by its original statement.

Manny Waks, founder of Tzedek, an organization for victims and survivors of Jewish child sex abuse in Australia, said Francis’ sentencing “is yet another reminder that perpetrators of such crimes will be held to account, irrespective of when the abuse occurred.”

Two other child sex abuse cases involving Jewish organizations are currently before the Australian courts. One of them is under a gag order, while the other involves a non-Jewish bus driver who worked at the fervently Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne. There are also ongoing police investigations relating to cases involving the ultra-Orthodox community in Melbourne and Sydney, according to Waks. David Kramer, a former teacher at a Chabad-run school in Melbourne, was jailed last month for molesting four boys over a decade ago.

Reuters