Australian Orthodox groups offer mixed responses to abuse scandals

By Sam Sokol (Jerusalem Post)
February 25, 2015

In the wake of the revelations that community leaders in Australia suppressed information relating to child molestation, rabbis around the world have begun issuing calls for their constituents to report suspicions directly to civil authorities without prior rabbinic consultation.

Despite this, however, views on reporting among the ultra-Orthodox are mixed, with the national umbrella group Agudath Israel of America maintaining that rabbinic sanction is needed prior to the disclosure of suspicions.

Over the past several weeks, rabbis affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch hassidic movement testified before Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, causing shock waves throughout the Jewish world.

“A culture of cover-up, often couched in religious terms, pervaded our thinking and our actions,” one senior rabbi told the commission, which heard testimony relating to the social ostracism that victims and their families faced after coming forward.

“It is a gross abuse of rabbinic power for rabbis anywhere in the world today to think that they can deal with sexual crimes and to start asking questions, ‘Will I listen to the child’s evidence or not listen to the child’s evidence?’ It has to be dealt with by the civil authorities,” Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, the head of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, said earlier his month.

Among those who testified was Rabbi Yosef Feldman, an administrator at the Sydney Yeshiva Center who called on authorities to show leniency to pedophiles if a long time has passed between the abuse and its discovery, should the perpetrators have repented and not relapsed.

Feldman also testified that he was unaware that he was required to pass on a report that an adult had laid down and massaged a student. His father, Rabbi Pinchas Feldman, admitted that he had neglected to inform the police after someone accused of abuse told him that he was planning on fleeing to the United States.

He also expressed concern that too much “publicity would bring about fake victims,” according to The Australian.

“Too much hype causes miscarriages of justice,” he said of two statements by Australian rabbinical organizations issued in 2011 calling for reporting abuse cases. “I didn’t think it was the time and place for the rabbis to come out in the media with public statements.”

In response to the scandal, rabbis and Orthodox organizations in Australia and around the world issued or reemphasized preexisting guidelines on reporting abuse, telling their congregants that going to the police does not contravene the prohibition of mesira, or informing on Jews to gentile authorities.

In an open letter, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria stated unequivocally that “there is an actual obligation to report any allegations of child abuse directly to the police and relevant authorities.”

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis likewise came out strongly in favor of reporting, calling it a “legal, moral and religious imperative.”

“Nobody is above the law and no institution is greater than its members or followers. The impact of bringing sexual predators to light, however embarrassing for our communities, pales into insignificance when the alternative would result in the shame of protecting criminals, abandoning victims and risking the safety of so many others.”

Not every organization has come out clearly on the side of reporting directly to the police, however.

In an email exchange with The Jerusalem Post, senior executives at Agudath Israel of America admitted that it is possible that the organization’s rabbinic leadership is not aware of developments in Australia and that their position remains unchanged.

According to the group’s 2011 policy, while it is “obligatory to report suspicions of abuse or molestation,” in many cases rabbinic sanction is necessary before such a move can be made.

According to the policy, which was posted on the Cross- Currents website by spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran, where there is raglayim la’davar (roughly, reason to believe) that a child has been abused or molested, the matter should be reported to the authorities.”

Agudath Israel maintains, however, that because the question of whether evidence meets that standard “has serious implications for all parties, and raises sensitive halachic issues, the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment...

[but] should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halacha and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation.”

This remains the organization’s policy, according to Shafran.

“I’m not sure our rabbinic leadership is aware yet of these developments in Australia,” Agudath Israel executive vice-president rabbi David Zwiebel told the Post. “I don’t know that the Australian situation has been studied by our senior rabbinic authorities.”

Asked what circumstances would merit direct reporting without the need to seek rabbinic counsel, Zwiebel replied that the policy deals with suspicions of abuse, and that if someone “witnessed it personally – it is my understanding that the consensus of halachic authority is that he may report directly.”

Queried as to whether that would include a child telling his parent that he was molested or a report from a credible third party, Zwiebel said that “the statement sets forth certain general principles, not specific scenarios. It’s not for me to speculate how to apply those principles to specific cases.”

Manny Waks, the founder of Australian victim’s advocacy group Tzedek and one of the former victims who testified at the commission, said that he believes that the whole concept of raglayim la’daver is “misguided.”

“I’ve never heard this concept raised in the context of murder or other serious crimes. The reality is that false reporting by children of sexual abuse is extremely rare,” he asserted, calling on Agudath Israel to “urgently review its policy and amend it to reflect a position that would achieve a more appropriate outcome.”

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a senior rabbinic administrator at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary and the president of the Religious Zionists of America, came out strongly against Agudath Israel’s position, stating that rabbis “who have no training should not be consulted beforehand.”

“If the rabbinical leadership of Aguda is unaware of the scandal in Australia, which seems unlikely, then they should be informed. Now that David Zwiebel and Avi Shafran are aware, they have a responsibility to give the information to any member of the rabbinical leadership uninformed and get a reaction.”

According to Zvi Gluck, the director of Amudim Community Resources, who recently chaired a symposium on the issue of abuse in the observant community, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, who was considered the greatest legal authority among non-hassidic haredim until his death in 2012, was in favor of reporting.

Gluck cited a report by Rabbi Zecharia Greenwald who asked Eliashiv to clarify the ruling that he had given to Agudath Israel.

In a YouTube video posted last year, Greenwald recalled the conversation, saying that the senior rabbi told him that a “circumstantial understanding that what is being said is true” is sufficient to justify turning to the authorities.