There are three distinct aspects to the child sexual abuse scandal that continues to plague Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre:
- The perpetrators who carried out the abuse.
- The administrators who placed the community’s children in harm’s way through their actions and inactions.
- The community leaders and members who blame the victims instead of the administrators for Yeshivah’s current woes.
Without each of the above, there would not have been a Royal Commission public hearing into Yeshivah. Once all three aspects have been properly addressed and the issues resolved, Yeshivah will be in a position to move forward.
Justice has now caught up with some of the paedophiles. In some cases they have been arrested, charged, pleaded or been found guilty and been given prison sentences. Although it took far too long, the administrators were eventually removed and the remaining members of the Board of Trustees have promised to step down in the coming months, a tacit acknowledgement of their responsibility for the path down which they led Yeshivah.
I am fairly confident that the first two issues which led to the Royal Commission have now largely been resolved. But it is the third limb that continues to bog Yeshivah down and it is a source of great frustration and disappointment to me, to other victims, to many within the Yeshivah community and to the wider community.
Since the Royal Commission, the attacks from members of the Yeshivah community against victims have not abated. Often they have been launched by relatives and associates of those whose failings were exposed during the Royal Commission.
For that reason, I expect the attacks against myself and other victims will probably intensify in the lead-up to and after the Royal Commission hands down its findings. I fully understand that there are some people who will never accept the truth about what transpired at Yeshivah and how people they know and love will be judged by our legal system and the community. It is far easier for these people to come up with excuses and point their fingers at us, whose only wrong was to seek justice and the safety of our children. Nevertheless, it is completely unacceptable, and if Yeshivah is to ever move on properly from the Royal Commission and be a truly safe environment for past victims and current children, this behaviour needs to be stamped out immediately from the inside. As I have previously stated, policies and procedures are great, but which victim would be brave enough to come forward when they see the way some community members still treat victims?
In recent weeks, a long-time Yeshivah member with a surname at the centre of the abuse scandal, took it upon himself to publicly berate victims and blame them for Yeshivah’s woes while attending services at Yeshivah. To their credit, a couple of Yeshivah members intervened and the Interim Committee of Management issued a broad statement making it clear that such behaviour was not to be tolerated.
My preference, however, would have been for each and every person in the room (and apparently in at least two separate incidents regarding two separate victims that I am aware of, there were many people in attendance) to stand up and make their voices heard. It should not have been left to the two or so people involved.
Importantly, it seems absolutely no action was taken against the perpetrator. In my view, nothing less than a temporary ban on this individual from the entire Yeshivah Centre is warranted. A strong position needs to be taken so that the perpetrator will not re-offend (in this case he is a repeat offender) and there is sufficient deterrence for others (at least one of the victims has stated that he has been attacked previously by other members of the same family of the perpetrator in this case).
Also, it is important to note that the Yeshivah Centre has previously issued public statements condemning such actions - therefore to many, these statements are completely meaningless, especially as they have not been backed up with appropriate actions. So the Yeshivah leadership must now stand up and take appropriate actions immediately.
Those members of the Yeshivah community who continue to attack us victims, publically or by stealth, are no longer only hurting us, but they are also hurting their fellow community members. I believe the vast majority of the Yeshivah community wants nothing more than to move on. They have had enough of seeing their community on the front page of newspapers, of being an embarrassment to the rest of the Jewish community and of being surrounded by (at times senseless) hatred and malicious gossip. It is truly ironic that an organisation that claims to operate under the Chabad ethos of loving every Jew and increasing in good deeds continues to be a cesspool of the very opposite of what it claims to represent. How can you long for the rebuilding of the Temple when the very actions occurring in your midst are those that saw it destroyed?
I vividly recall in the early days of my public campaign (mid-2011) that whenever I criticised the Yeshivah Centre, their members and supporters asked me to differentiate between the leadership and the community. At the time, they all seemed to blame the leadership. Somewhat reluctantly I accepted their request and became more specific in my criticisms – I say reluctantly only because I felt that as community members of that institution they also had a crucial role to play.
But now, to some degree, the Yeshivah leadership has changed. There is a new (interim) Committee of Management, with whom I have been in ongoing contact. And apparently a new governance structure will be introduced in due course – importantly, as noted above, the largely decades-old Board of Trustees has committed to step down as a part of this important process. Rabbi Zvi Telsner, their senior rabbi who has admitted to causing so much harm to so many, belatedly resigned – although rumours continue to abound that he will be re-instated shortly (since his resignation nothing of substance has changed as he continues to fulfil the role of senior rabbi there).
There is no doubt that Yeshivah has started a much-needed transformation since the Royal Commission. The voices of reason, compassion and good that had been silent for so long are starting to make themselves heard. But the real questions are how long will the community have to wait for these voices to speak loud enough to drown out the bad ones? When will the bad eggs (which exist in every community) be told in no uncertain terms that no matter their surname or how much money their relatives contribute to the institution, they cannot get away with continuing to deprive their community of a future of which they can be proud?
It is true that it takes time to change a culture. So no, we do not expect everything to happen overnight. But we also will not continue to put up with such barbaric behaviour, especially by those who perceive themselves to be “a light unto the nations”. We expect both the ongoing abuse and intimidation to cease immediately, and for the Yeshivah community as a whole to stand up to these people – unequivocally, not just in words but also in deeds.
It involves saying to victims you are not to blame for any of this. You were a child and you were wronged. And you have every right to demand justice, to tell the world what happened to you at the time and subsequently, and that, in at least some cases, it was entirely preventable if only the administrators had acted properly. The administrators had a responsibility to protect you and they failed. The administrators also had the responsibility to support you and they failed. They are the problem, not you. And we, the community, will demand that anybody who claims otherwise be removed from our community and institutions. Because only then will our community be truly safe.
Enough! No more silence.