Australian Jewish school said to hide sexual abuse for 20 years

Royal commission probing institutions that mismanaged and concealed crimes for decades

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Maria Gerace testifies before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Feb. 2, 2015. Witnesses testified that Jewish leaders were aware of sexual abuse in Jewish schools for decades without reporting it to authorities. (photo credit: courtesy of the royal commission)
Maria Gerace testifies before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Feb. 2, 2015. Witnesses testified that Jewish leaders were aware of sexual abuse in Jewish schools for decades without reporting it to authorities. (photo credit: courtesy of the royal commission)

The Australian government heard accusations Monday that the Melbourne Jewish leadership was aware that a school employee sexually abused and assaulted minors, but continued to employ him for more than 20 years.

The claim came amid an investigation of sexual assault cases in Jewish religious schools.

The mother of one of the abused children spoke before the commission and said that she had first reported her son’s abuse in 1986 to the director of Yeshivah Center of Melbourne, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner.

Groner, who died in 2008, allegedly responded, “Oh no, I thought we cured him,” she said. He then assured her he would “take care of it. It will be fine.”

The Australian government has begun investigating sexual assault cases from Jewish religious schools as part of an overall inquiry into child abuse in various institutions, Jewish and otherwise, across the country, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began its investigation in 2013. It has investigated the Catholic church, the Australian scouts, a yoga ashram and other groups, and the investigation will now inquire into several sexual assault cases in the Jewish community in order to report on how those institutions responded to sexual abuse against children and how they prevented it — or failed to.

The Yeshivah Center Melbourne, Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah Colleges, the Yeshiva Center Chabad of New South Wales and Yeshiva College Bondi will all be investigated in the commission, Maria Gerace, who is assisting in the investigation, said Monday morning. Many of those institutions are part of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

An Australian Royal Commission, or an Australian Commission of Inquiry as it is also known, has greater powers than a judge in a regular criminal proceeding. A royal commission can levy harsher fines and sentences for witnesses who fail to testify, can hold hearings in camera — without the public present — if necessary and seize documents and other evidence.

The commission announced its intention to investigate the Jewish schools two months ago, requesting information and relevant documents and alerting the institutions to the possibility of public hearings.

Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, president of The Organization of Rabbis of Austral-Asia, told The Australian Jewish News that the requests did not appear to be directed toward specific individuals, but rather toward institutions within the Jewish community.

“I believe that each organization has been cooperative, and I have every confidence in the Royal Commission that they will conduct their investigations in a professional and appropriate manner,” Kluwgant said.

The Australian Jewish community was rocked in 2013 when security guard and youth leader David Cyprys was arrested and pleaded guilty to five counts of rape, five counts of indecent assault, attempted indecent assault, and two counts of gross indecency. Cyprys is serving an eight-year sentence for his crimes.

“David Cyprys was a serial abuser of children,” Gerace told the commission, according to The Guardian. “The youngest of his victims was seven years old at the time he was abused.”

Manny Waks, who founded the Jewish sexual assault victims’ support group Tzedek, said he was also abused by Cyprys. Waks told the commission that he had asked Groner, the former director of Yeshivah Center of Melbourne, approximately 10 years ago why Cyprys was still employed by the school, despite the allegations that were well known throughout the community since the early nineties.

Waks testified that Groner told him he was “personally dealing with it” and that Cyprys was receiving professional help.

The proceedings are not criminal. Rather, the commission is trying to understand what mechanisms within the Jewish institutions allowed the crimes to happen.

“I anticipate witnesses will also give evidence that a person’s standing in the community and community attitudes to a member can affect, positively or adversely, a member’s prospect of marriage and economic opportunities,” Gerace told the Sydney Morning Herald.

One of the aspects that was said to interest the commission in the Jewish institutions’ sexual abuse scandals is the insular nature of the Jewish community as a whole and the Chabad community in particular.

Gerace said in her opening address that the commission would hear testimony that describes the Chabad community as being “insular and set apart from the wider secular community,” the Guardian reported.

Another element that the commission will investigate is the Jewish concept of “mesirah.” In Jewish law under certain conditions Jews are not supposed to inform non-Jewish authorities of other Jews’s wrongdoing.

The concept has come up in several cases of sexual abuse within Jewish communities, including a case in 2013 concerning a UK rabbi who warned a victim that informing authorities would violate this precept. “People mustn’t tell tales,” he added in Yiddish.

“We have gained an understanding of failures to protect children in residential facilities, schools including boarding schools, Christian churches of every character, Jewish organizations, kindergartens, after-school care, sporting organizations, dance classes, music organizations, scouts, hospitals and other institutions,” the chairman of the commission, Justice Peter McClellan, said.

The commission is set to release its findings by December 31, 2015.

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