Melbourne, Australia – In 1993, Zephaniah Waks, a devout member of the Chabad ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism, made devastating allegations to the principal of Chabad’s day school in Melbourne.
Waks alleged that one of his 17 children had been sexually abused by Rabbi David Kramer, a teacher at the Yeshiva School.
Later that day, Waks said the principal, Rabbi Abraham Glick, called him to say Kramer had admitted abusing one of Waks’ sons, and other boys. But a few days later, Waks learned Kramer was still teaching at the school and demanded his dismissal.
Waks eventually got his way, but instead of reporting Kramer to the police, the school – according to witness testimony – allegedly bought the teacher a ticket to Israel.
Kramer eventually moved to the US where he was sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing a child at a synagogue, before being extradited to Australia and imprisoned again.
Waks is one of 16 parents, children and former educators who appeared as witnesses this month at a public hearing chaired by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which wrapped up investigating the Yeshiva campuses in Melbourne and Sydney on Friday.
Widespread sexual abuse
Established in 2013, the Royal Commission has been tasked with finding out why so many schools and other institutions in Australia failed to respond properly to reports of child sexual abuse. The breadth of institutions under the spotlight is staggering: aside from Yeshiva, the commission is looking into otherwise revered bodies such as The Salvation Army and Swimming Australia.
The Royal Commission does not have the power to launch prosecutions or provide compensation to victims, but it has referred 493 cases to police.
Sexual abuse flourishes in situations where systems are closed and hierarchical, and staff are only accountable to themselves.
According to Tzedek, a Melbourne support and advocacy group founded by Manny Waks, another one of Zephaniah Waks’ sons who was abused, there are about 100 Jewish ultra-Orthodox victims of child sex abuse in Australia.
Although the number of children sexually abused in Catholic institutions in Australia is believed to be far higher, parallels can be drawn.
“Sexual abuse flourishes in situations where systems are closed and hierarchical, and staff are only accountable to themselves,” said Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse. “So, sadly, we have seen a phenomena across many religious institutions where administrators prioritise the needs of the institution or staff over the victims.”
Protecting abusers, punishing victims
In damning testimony heard at the Royal Commission, a Jewish mother speaking under the pseudonym AVQ said she approached Yeshiva’s then-director Yitzchok Dovid Groner with claims that David Cyprys, a former security guard, martial-arts instructor and locksmith at Yeshiva, had inappropriately touched her son in 1986. This was a decade before Manny was abused by the same man.
“Oh no, I thought we cured him,” AVQ said Groner told her at the time, assuring her he would “take care of it”. But Cyprys continued working there for another 25 years, abusing up to a dozen different boys until police finally arrested him in 2011. Cyprys is now serving an eight-year prison sentence for molesting eight boys and raping a ninth at the school.
“There is no doubt in my mind Yeshiva College and some of its rabbis were aware of [Cyprys’] penchant for young boys,” said AVQ’s son, speaking at the Royal Commission under the pseudonym AVA.
When Zephaniah Waks learned of Manny’s abuse in 1996, he told the police – defying the centuries-old rabbinical law known as “mesirah”, a code of silence prohibiting Jews from handing over other Jews to secular authorities.
The move cost him dearly. Branded a “moser”, or informant, Waks and his family were allegedly subjected to a vicious campaign of isolation, verbal abuse, and even punch-ups at a synagogue – causing the family to pack up and leave the country.
“This was a very difficult time for both my wife and I,” Zephaniah Waks told the Royal Commission. “Every aspect of our lives involved the Yeshiva community. We lost all our friends. We felt like we’d been reduced to nothing.”
So far, Manny Waks is the only victim of child sex abuse at Australia’s Chabad schools to have publicly spoken out.
The Yeshiva Centre told Al Jazeera it wouldn’t comment at this time.
But Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, one of Australia’s most senior Orthodox rabbis, said at a Royal Commission hearing that Jewish people have an obligation to report sexual abuse to police, and the code of mesirah does not apply.
“I believe it is an absolute religious obligation to report any allegations of child sexual abuse as quickly as possible to the appropriate authorities and to suggest there is some religious obligation not to do so is an abomination,” he said.
Gasps emanated from spectators when Rabbi Yossi Feldman, the former administrative director of Yeshiva in Sydney, said he didn’t know it was illegal for a man to touch a child’s genitals, or to lay down with and massage a child.
“It could potentially be something that was highly inappropriate. I did not know what a crime was. In Japan, I heard they allow child pornography,” he said.
Feldman told the Royal Commission that reformed paedophiles are not a threat to society, and the law should treat them leniently so they don’t have to spend their lives feeling like the “scum of the Earth”.
The comments drew fiery condemnation from the Jewish community. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry released a statement saying Feldman’s views were “repugnant to Jewish values”.
The Australian Jewish News described them as “heinous” and said they have “shamed [the community] in the full glare of the mainstream media spotlight”. Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus, Australia’s largest Jewish school, called on Feldman to resign.
That call was answered last week when Feldman apologised and resigned from his administrative roles at Yeshiva.
On Monday, Australia’s most senior rabbi, Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, also resigned after revelations at the Royal Commission that he had called Zephaniah Waks a “lunatic”.
Manny Waks, now 38 and working as a victim-survivor advocate in France, told Al Jazeera he believes the Royal Commission is doing important work. Nevertheless, he remains inconsolable, calling for police investigations of all Yeshiva officials who allegedly covered up child sex abuse in the 1980s and ’90s.
“When you know a crime was committed and you help the person go overseas … is that not aiding and abetting an alleged known criminal?”
The Royal Commission will relocate to Sydney this week to examine child sex abuse in out-of-home care, Knox Grammar School, and the Uniting Church. When the hearings conclude in December 2017, it will make recommendations to government on how to create systematic change.
According to Kezelman, recommendations should focus on developing new checks and balances, and implement independent monitoring systems. “We need a system within religious institutions that necessitates compliance with secular laws,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Further education of teachers and principals is also needed so they can look out for red flags that suggest a child is being abused. We need to change perceptions and the entrenched taboo of even talking about the problem. Recently, we’ve seen a number of very high-profile entertainers being implicated in child sex crimes, and the first response is always disbelief.”
However, Chris Goddard, an adjunct professor at Monash University, argued legislation is needed to encourage whistleblowers and punish those who knew of abuse but failed to report it.
“Not reporting child sex abuse and moving perpetrators around should be a serious criminal offence,” he said. “And I think the Royal Commission is moving in that direction.”
Disclosure: The reporter was a student at Yeshiva College in Melbourne from 1980 to 1985 – before the documented abuses took place. Rabbi Glick was the reporter’s principal.