Australia’s Royal Commission Blew Open the Story of Sex Abuse in Chabad

Zephaniah Waks and his son, Manny Waks

Zephaniah Waks and his son, Manny Waks

Child sex abuse is covered up by intimidating victims everywhere in the ultra-orthodox world from Israel to the US, from the northern reaches of Canada and Europe to the southern tips of South Africa, Argentina and Australasia. Periodically some unusual victims break the code of silence and the civil judiciary tries, convicts, and sentences the offenders. But most of the predators continue to offend protected by the community which covers up the crimes and intimidates the witnesses. The rabbis who orchestrate the cover ups escape unscathed.

But an unusual set of individuals and circumstances changed the game in Australia. Many of those complicit were exposed on national and international media, top rabbis were forced to resign their positions. “Peak” Jewish bodies in Australia have denounced this sordid pattern. Chabad, the dominant group in the Australian rabbinate, is reeling. Even its international organization was forced to implicitly apologize and promise to behave better in the future. All this got sensational coverage in Australian media and the Guardian (UK).

This was all because of  the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. The Commission is looking at many groups in Australia including the Catholic Church, other religious groups and various children’s sports programs.  They were authorized by the national government and all the individual states  by 2012 and they are currently authorized to function until 2017. They are well resourced with a staff of attorneys and investigators and they  have the subpoena power to compel the delivery of documents and testimony (both in public and in private).

During the first two weeks of February the Commission conducted public hearings about cover ups by Chabad in Melbourne and Sydney. Over two thirds of Australia’s 112,000 Jews live in those cities. While only a small portion of Australian Jewry is ultra orthodox in practice, Chabad/Lubavitch rabbis occupy most of the pulpit positions in Australia. This very wealthy Jewish community is one of the crown jewels of Chabad’s world-wide organization. There is no other large Jewish community in which Chabad  so completely dominates the rabbinate. This is no longer true, the revelations have undercut their influence and forced some of their most prominent rabbis to resign their positions in communal bodies.

For the best account of this incredible story, read yesterday’s article in the Guardian, “Rabbis’ absolute power: how sex abuse tore apart Australia’s Orthodox Jewish community.”

I have a bone to pick with article. They describe the courage of a few victims in exposing this story. Manny and Zephaniah Waks deserve enormous credit for their pluck in exposing the issue and weathering horrendous attempts silence them. But other Haredi (ultra-orthodox) communities also have their whistle blowers, for example Sam Kellner in Boro Park. Periodically, through the courage of such whistleblowers, other offenders have been exposed and convicted. What was different in Australia is that the government investigated and exposed the cover ups and intimidation. We are still waiting for the governments of the US and Israel to undertake the same sorts of investigations. Moreover, the political power of Haredi voters make such a development unlikely.

While most communities want their children protected, it is the responsibility of government to step in when their families and communities fail them. Sadly, ultra orthodox communities have succeeded in deterring the criminal justice system from intervening aggressively. Instead, most of them will sometimes prosecute when they are given a good enough case, but rarely will they aggressively pursue those who intimidate their victims.

The simple fact is that the District Attorneys of Brooklyn and Rockland County discriminate against Jewish Children by not acting aggressively to prosecute abuse which would in turn require investigating and prosecuting those who intimidate and bribe victims and those who support victims.

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11 thoughts on “Australia’s Royal Commission Blew Open the Story of Sex Abuse in Chabad

    • Your comment may have been meant as a joke, but the point has a serious side. A government inquiry into the Orthodox leadership’s sex abuse cover-ups in Brooklyn — an inquiry that would likely reveal more wrongs than we already know about at institutions like Ohel, not to mention yeshivas all over the county — is long overdue. Why hasn’t it happened? Probably for the same reason Mondrowitz was ignored by the D.A. for so many years, while he lived openly in Jerusalem; the same reason Shlomo Helbrans wasn’t charged until federal prosecutors were involved; the same reason Hafner walked even before a grand jury could indict him; the same reason Colmer, Kolko and so many others got cushy plea deals when the D.A. couldn’t avoid prosecuting them.

      I don’t mean to minimize the revelations from Australia — they’re appalling. But what we have right here is really much worse, not only because of the size of the community but because of the durability and scope of the cover-up apparatus it has nurtured, which dwarfs its equivalent in Australia because, among other things, it has conscripted secular authorities to participate in its conspiracies.

      Can this be changed? Well, that will certainly take effort. But we do have some opportunities for action. One reason I’ve written again about the Hafner case is that the mishandling of a criminal case by state prosecutors — due to rabbinic interference that succeeded, apparently, for political reasons — is something a broad public should care about and want to prevent a recurrence of. Hammer away at malfeasance by state officials in New York, and we’ve got a chance of getting people interested in a real investigation. And once a case like Hafner gets investigated, it won’t be just the prosecutors whose roles are exposed.

      • Bs’d. So what are we supposed to do- throw these perpetrators into a van, drive them up to the Adirondac mountains, tie them to a tree and shoot themthem@ Hey….

  1. Please pardon me for hammering the obvious. The abuse we are concerned with is not rape or seduction of children by random strangers, but sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the victim’s family, family friends, and/or respected figures in the victim’s religious community.

    Historically, non-totalitarian governments have been very reluctant to interfere with family relationships, and only somewhat less reluctant to interfere with relationships within religious communities. Society has historically recognized that the criminal law is a crude, blunt instrument when applied to existing family and social relationships, and is coming to recognize that even legally-enforced “therapeutic” interventions are not always beneficial and may be be less than benign, as the would-be intervenors have their own ideological and material interests in play. In non-totalitarian societies, state intervention in religious and family matters has rightly been limited to extreme cases, i.e., where there is strong evidence that a child is in danger of grave harm.

    I have no problem including sexual abuse in that category. But the huge question is why state intervention should be necessary. Child sexual abuse is regarded, and has historically been regarded, as a grave sin in both Judaism and Catholicism. Unlike corporal punishment, no excuse for sexual abuse can be entertained within either religion. Sexual abuse is inflicted for the satisfaction of the abuser; any claim that sexual abuse is “good” for child-victims would be emphatically rejected with disgust by Jews and Catholics alike. And yet child sexual abuse has been not only tolerated, but has been covered up, using the tools of family, religious and communal cohesion, betraying helpless children.

    State intervention in cases of religiously-enabled child sexual abuse can be seen as a victory against abuse, but should also be seen as a (deserved) defeat for the religious community involved. Jewish tradition has regarded the destruction of both the First and Second Temples by non-Jewish powers as punishment authorized by Hashem for neglecting the Covenant. Might not the present humiliation of Orthodox (and Catholic) communities by the intervention of secular, civil authorities as a consequence of their neglect of basic precepts of Divine law (Torah and Noachide respectively) be considered a similar, albeit gentler, rebuke? What have we come to, that we are looking to the goyim to be a light unto us?

    • This is an insightful and well written comment. However, the last sentence actually points to the cause of the coverup. Seeing ourselves as apart from the “goyim” emphasizes the tribal nature of the Jewish world – and this tribalism is ultimately the source of prohibitions of “mesira” (however laughable and misinterpreted they may be). When tribalism trumps the desire to do the right thing (and causes people to denigrate sources of truth because they are “goyishe”), these scandals are the result.

        • To be morally superior should not be a religious ideal. A real religious ideal would be to recognize and acknowledge truth, from whatever source.

            • Yeah, but everybody defines “beneficial effect” differently. Many people I know seriously believe that they are exerting a beneficial effect on the world by bringing as many yiddishe neshamas into it as they are physically capable, taking charity, scamming the government, learning Torah to the exclusion of earning an honest living, etc…To me, religion is just a tool which can be used by different people in different ways. Inside religion or out of it, I would settle for people living by some principle like “Do No Harm”. However, given some people’s natural predilection for power, greed,etc..this is not likely to happen at a universal level.

  2. Power trumps morality and true religiosity in insular communities such as the various Hasidic and Haredi ones – this explains everything.

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