Jewish Boys School Gave Molester Free Run

by Kate Legge (The Australian)
July 15. 2011

An orthodox Jewish boys college in Melbourne continued to allow a trusted member of the community access to its campus, years after he pleaded guilty to a charge of indecent assault against a teenage student at the school.

The case has emerged in a new police investigation into pedophile activities at Yeshivah College between 1989 and 1993. Former students are coming forward with allegations that have rocked the Jewish community in St Kilda East, where black-clad, bearded Hasidic worshippers cut a distinctive presence on the streets. Their signed statements point to multiple offenders and blame a school hierarchy unwilling to flush them out.

Police records reveal that a Yeshivah College representative was interviewed in December 1991 soon after a boy complained he had been molested several times by a trusted mentoring figure heavily involved in extracurricular activities, who frequently mixed with students on the school's premises. According to the teenage victim, now living interstate, the mentor was assigned to him in "a caretaker role" when he arrived in Melbourne.

No conviction was recorded when the case went to court in 1992 and the offender was released on a promise of good behaviour with a fine of $1500.

Past and present parents of Yeshivah College are furious the school took no action to bar the offender from the school in Hotham Street at the heart of Melbourne's Jewish community, where security patrols orthodox premises alert for external threats.

One parent this week lamented the awful irony of a greater risk to children's safety behind the school's fortified perimeter.

Fresh complaints about the offender have come to light since Victorian police last month began probing sexual assault at the college during a four-year period 20 years ago.

Yeshivah College principal Yehoshua Smukler declined to answer questions from The Weekend Australian about the man's present relationship with the school. An update to parents last week expressed sympathy "for those who may have been affected" and reinforced the school's commitment "to a safe and nurturing environment where students, staff and parents feel comfortable to come forward with any concerns".

Rabbi Smukler insists the latest allegations "do not relate to a member of staff".

Documents pertinent to the man's occupation name the Yeshivah Centre, which runs the school, as his employer. He refused to be interviewed and would not respond to questions.

"I have done nothing wrong and I have nothing further to say to you," he said.

The new police investigation was driven by accusations against former Yeshivah teacher David Kramer, now behind bars for sexually abusing a child in the US, who was spirited out of Australia in 1993 after several students alleged they had been molested by him, prompting outraged parents to demand his removal.

The then chairman of the school's executive, Harry Cooper, this week confirmed that Kramer was flown to Israel at the school's expense. Parents were offered counselling but no one reported the allegations to the police.

Cooper, who lives in Israel, told The Weekend Australian: "At the request of the parents, we shipped him off. I remember it vividly."

He said he was aware of another allegation against an individual at the school, but "I don't think he was on the payroll".

Asked why the school helped Kramer leave the country without reporting him to the police, Cooper said: "It was a different world then. But we didn't give him any references. When a school in Israel asked for one, we told them of the allegations."

Kramer later went to the US, where he was convicted in 2008 after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a 12-year-old boy at a synagogue in Missouri and sentenced to seven years' jail.

The mother of a former student who made allegations against Kramer believes the school authorities were aware of the problem.

"Of course they knew about it," the mother said. "They organised for me to see a counsellor. Yeshivah should have done something at the time -- I don't know why they didn't." Melbourne's Jewish community is close-knit. Attempts at transparency by the parents of former students have been frustrated by historical loyalty to religious codes, such as the "mesirah", which discourages members from reporting crimes to police, and the "arka'ot" prohibiting use of secular courts. Although a ruling last year by Victorian rabbis forbids followers to remain silent in cases of sexual abuse, many victims have been paralysed by an insidious fear of reprisal if they co-operate with civil authorities.

Soon after police appealed for co-operation, one of Yeshivah's religious leaders, Zvi Telsner, upset some in the community when his Saturday sermon drew on a biblical episode warning of the dangers of gossip and slander. Rabbi Telsner later dismissed any suggestion he was discouraging informers as "absolute rubbish".

In comments to Australian Jewish News, he called on the Yeshivah community to unite and help each other rather than "sending emails around and making trouble".

A concerned parent had emailed members of the community 24 hours earlier urging them to speak up. "Many in the community have been aware of these allegations for an extended period," the parent wrote. "We must ensure a full, thorough and proper investigation is conducted, and those who took advantage of our children are held to account".

This view is not universal. "Unless you know very specific details about a particular case, you may not inform the authorities, and anyone may kill you to prevent you doing so," was the comment on one Jewish blog where debate has raged for weeks over how to manage a problem hidden for years and now erupting with the same ferocity that shook up the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Rabbis from the New York headquarters of the orthodox Chabad sect associated with Yeshivah met this week as tensions mounted over how best to handle recent "severe incidents of child abuse".

They issued a sternly worded edict demanding openness to "eradicate evil from our midst".

Yeshivah College was first informed by police of sexual abuse allegations in 1991 before the introduction of mandatory reporting two years later. In 1993, the school dealt with allegations against Kramer. In 1996, another former student, Manny Waks, made a statement to police detailing multiple allegations of abuse between 1989 and 1991. He implicated the same individual who pleaded guilty to indecent assault in 1992 as well as another religious figure now living in the US.

The abuse began when Mr Waks was 12 and continued for two years.

This 1996 brief is one of several "cold" cases police are revisiting. Detective Acting Sergeant Scott Dwyer, who leads the latest inquiry, confirmed this week that "older matters" were being examined. Mr Waks, now 35, says he informed Yitzchok Groner, then Yeshivah's spiritual head, of his allegations in 1996. Rabbi Groner died in 2008.

The offender who pleaded guilty in court won the confidence of boys through his participation in school activities. He allegedly lured Mr Waks into the bath house at the rear of the college, where worshippers strip for ritual cleansing, and molested him in the water.

The teenager involved in the 1992 court case this week recalled having hypnosis and therapy to recover from being molested inside the bath house and at two other locations. He remembered the man warning him: "You can tell the school anything you like, they'll do nothing. I've got something on them."

" He was supposed to be looking after me. My trust was abused."

Now in his 30s, the former student wants to remain anonymous. When he complained to the school, he said "they accused me of lying". Twenty years later, he's fearful of publicity that might jeopardise his employment.

Several other former students who claim they were molested by this individual spoke to The Weekend Australian of the shame that had kept them quiet. One who had confided only in his wife took weeks to pluck up courage for a police interview. His sworn statement alleges the same man molested him in a deadlocked classroom when he was about 11 years old.

"I don't recall how it stopped or how long it went on for," he said. "I just remember it seemed to last forever. When it was over, I recall (him) expressly warning me that I was not allowed to tell anyone or he would hurt me."

He told police the man's activities were an "open secret but his rights were never curtailed, nor was he punished or publicly shunned".

He disclosed that "the most important reason I never came forward in my adult years was

(I was worried) that if I were to do so, I would be excommunicated from the community".

The perception of power and influence continues to worry people today.

Mr Waks, the only person so far prepared to speak publicly, says he has not received any counselling or pastoral support from the school. He now lives in Canberra. Others reside in their childhood neighbourhood. They worship at the Yeshivah synagogue. Some have sons at the school.

Mr Waks welcomed the "long overdue" expression of sympathy this week from the Yeshivah Centre as "first steps".

"There is still much more they need to do in this devastating episode," he said. "Yeshivah still needs to be held accountable for (failing to prevent) the years of abuse that has impacted upon the lives of so many people. I intend to do just that."

He has been patient enough. His first efforts to alert Rabbi Groner to the problem in 1996 achieved nothing. Four years later, Mr Waks alleges he was walking past the school gates and saw the man standing outside "smirking" at him.

"It made my blood boil," he said. "I went to Rabbi Groner's office. I said: 'You've got this person here and we all know what he's done. He's in a position of authority; he has access to children.' Rabbi Groner pleaded with me not take it further."

Angst within the community over Rabbi Groner's legacy divides the Jewish blogosphere. Mr Waks's character has been assassinated. Pini Althaus, whose father is a Yeshivah trustee, posted comments defending Rabbi Groner's "zero tolerance" and describing the school's preferred modus operandi.

"The rare cases that did transpire were dealt with swiftly," Mr Althaus said. "Rabbi Groner gave them the choice to leave the country immediately or face criminal action. In retrospect, perhaps the latter would have been more appropriate; however, this was not the 'culture' at that time to turn someone in to the authorities."

Mr Althaus alludes to another individual he says should have been barred from the school grounds. "We all knew growing up then, one doesn't get into a car with this person, spend time alone with this person, etc. This was a given to us all."

Acting Sergeant Dwyer said yesterday he had received a flood of responses to his call for students to come forward. "Many haven't ever told their families," he says. "Some who did were told, 'We'll never speak of this again' . . . This is what you're up against. Those who have walked away from the religion find it easier."