Twelve appear before the Royal Commission

March 24, 2017 by Henry Benjamin
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Rabbi Pinchus Feldman has told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that he is not familiar with national child protection policies.

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, Anton Block, Bettina Cass and Rabbi Dr Ben Elton

He told the hearing: “I may be responsible to see to it that there should be child protection, but to ask about national regulations and what they are, that I am not familiar with, I’m sorry.”

Counsel assistant to the Commission Naomi Sharp asked Rabbi Feldman: “Are you aware that the Royal Commission has published a report on the 10 elements which make up a child safe organisation?”

Rabbi Feldman told her he had seen document and accepted one of those principles is that leadership is shown in the implementation of child protection policies within institutions.

Ms Sharp asked Do you accept that that means that the leaders of the institutions should be aware of the details of the child protection policies?

Rabbi Feldman responded: “That may be the case, and if that is the case then I am faulty, so we need to rectify that.”

The Commission’s Chair interjected: “It is not a question of “it may be the case”. What you’re being asked is whether, in the proper discharge of your responsibilities, it is the case.

Rabbi Feldman accepted the responsibility and was asked he had not addressed it before.

Rabbi Mendel Kastel, Rabbi Eli Cohen and Jennifer Huppert

He responded: “Because I have felt that I’ve delegated it to somebody who was thoroughly versed in these matters and who assured me that things were under control and that the policies were being followed. So, as I say, if there was some more that was needed for me to do, I apologise.

Naomi Sharp told Rabbi Feldman : “You’ve completely dropped the ball here, haven’t you, Rabbi Feldman?

Naomi Sharp asked Rabbi Feldman: “You have no idea what is in Chabad Youth’s child protection policy?

He answered: If you’ll test me on it I will not be able to respond to every detail.

Naomi Sharp asked Rabbi Feldman: You will see the heading “Elements of a Child Safe Institution”. You will see that the first point is that child safety is embedded  in institutional leadership, governance and culture. Do you think, Rabbi Feldman, that that is the case at Bondi Yeshiva, or is there room for further work to be done here?

Rabbi Feldman: “One may always improve, but in basic principle there is a commitment, an overall commitment for this, for these matters. As a matter of fact, if you speak about – that is my perspective, that is my philosophy and I have espoused this all of my career, from the time I was a young man in Yeshiva, that we are publicly committed to child safety and, indeed, we must continually work together with the authorities to improve the ordinance and the regulations of the institution.”

Twelve members of the Jewish community appeared as witnesses at a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing to inquire into the current policies and procedures of Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi in relation to child-protection and child-safety standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Appearing at the Sydney hearing were:

Rabbi Mendel Kastel, CEO of Sydney’s Jewish House and a member of the Child Protection Taskforce at the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

Rabbi Eli Cohen, Immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of NSW

Rabbi Dr Ben Elton, Chief Minister, The Great Synagogue, Sydney

Anton Block, President, Executive Council of Australian Jewry

Emeritus Professor Bettina Cass, Chair of the Social Justice Committee, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, Senior Dayan, Sydney Beth Din

Ms Jennifer Huppert, President, Jewish Community Council of Victoria

Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, Leader of Yeshiva Centre – Chabad NSW Headquarters

Rabbi Chaim Tsvi Groner, Head Rabbi, Yeshivah Centre Melbourne

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler, Principal, Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah Colleges, Melbourne

Rabbi Dovid Slavin, Executive Director, Yeshiva College Bondi

Ms Gavriella Aber, Educational policy officer, Yeshiva College Bondi

They were divided into two panels.

Rabbi Yehoshua Smuckler, Rabbi Chaim Zvi Groner, Rabbi Pinchus Feldman

The hearing’s purpose was to inquire into the current policies and procedures of Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi in relation to child protection and child-safe standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse, factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse at Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi, Factors that may have affected the institutional response of Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi to child sexual abuse. and the responses of Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi to relevant case study report(s) and other Royal Commission reports.

Rabbi Elton told the commission that in modern times any criminal matters should be dealt with laws of the land and whereas disputes of financial matters could be still be dealt with the rabbinical court. On asked about Mesira, the practice of one Jew reporting another to the secular  authorities, he said: “In generations past in societies where Jews could not rely upon the courts of land to treat them with fairness there was predisposition against sending a Jewish person to the secular court  because justice was not done.”  He added that in these days “we have faith in the legal system of the land”.

Gavriella Aber and Rabbi Dr Dovid Slavin

Counsel assistant to the Commission Naomi Sharp asked Rabbi Gutnick if there is “there any role for these principles [mesira] when it comes to child sexual abuse?”.  Rabbi Gutnick responded “none whatsover”…a response by all members of the panel.

The Commission heard statements on the practice of communities shunning those members who reported offences to the secular authorities. Jennifer Huppert said: “It is unacceptable to shun victims or their families.”

The panels agreed that whatever steps needed to improve child safety had to be implemented. Rabbi Kastel added: “We need to support the survivors”.

Jennifer Huppert said: “Our organisation must do what it can to encourage and lead by example so that we have adopted a child safe policy which is consistent with the Victoria Government child safety standards.”

Anton Block said: “A bright light has been shone on the atrocities that have occurred to children in our community has effected a cultural change.”  He said  that the NSWJBD and the JCCV have developed proper policies and are encouraging their affiliates to adopt those policies and maintain the conversation will mean that the light stays one and through that cultural change be brought about.

Ms Sharp quizzed Rabbi Groner and Rabbi Smuckler in the training of their youth service and were told that all had been trained in conjunction with ACF.

She asked Rabbi Feldman: What training in child protection do staff, either of a paid or voluntary capacity, undertake at the Yeshiva Centre Bondi?

He responded: The people that are involved – obviously the person in charge is Rabbi Elimelech Levy, who has gone many courses, but the volunteers, the few volunteers that we have, all go through Working With Children Checks, and we have had the two students that have now recently come, they’ve gone through the Youth Worker Training Program provided by EduCare, plus the first-aid programs.

Ms Sharp was told Rabbi Groner that people associated with or delivering services for Chabad Youth at Melbourne Yeshivah are required to undertake a three-hour online training session in child protection and asked Rabbi Feldman could be an assistance for the Yeshiva Centre. He agreed.

Gavriella Aber told the Commission that Yeshiva College had a sex education program run by Deborah Blackman.

She said: She talks to the children and asks them questions, gives them scenarios, gives them the language, and she uses Jewish words, Jewish religious words that they’re very comfortable with, to tell them that we have to be safe.

She’s brilliant. She’s really, really good, and she’s exactly what we need. She trains each child, each class, on their level  age-appropriate.

Then she has staff training, and the staff are supposed to be in while she’s training their classes. And then she also has a parents’ night. We do this annually. And what happens is that everybody has the same language, everybody understands.

She talks to the little kids about “no” feelings. If  someone is making you keep a secret and you feel a “no” feeling, if you are not comfortable about this secret, what should you do? You should tell an adult; that’s not a secret you’re supposed to keep.

She’s really, really good, and she has actually reported to me that she has quite a few disclosures coming  in when she goes to schools. Often there’s a disclosure or – you know, per school, you know, every time she visits,  which is brilliant. I mean, we shouldn’t have anything to disclose, but she gets disclosures; she gets thing happening.

So we have that from K to 10, every year since the Commission, which started in 2015, right after the Commission. We said, “What else can we do to bring this idea into the ethos of our school?” We did it in 2016; we’ve got it booked for term 2 of this year as well. It’s annual. That’s how often it has to happen. She does other Jewish schools as well.

Rabbi Smukler said the Yeshivah College has its own sex education program operating.

On the topic of redress, Rabbi Feldman said that Kesser Torah College “is the successor” of the Yeshiva College he was the head of until 2003.

Naomi Sharp asked Rabbi Feldman: “Looking back to the time prior to 2003 when you were the spiritual head of Yeshiva College in Bondi, as well as the spiritual head of Yeshiva Centre, do you agree that the Yeshiva Centre bears a moral responsibility to the survivors of sexual abuse where that abuse was experienced prior to 2003?

Rabbi Feldman answered: “We have indicated to those victims, or to that particular victim, that we are prepared to do whatever we can outside of financial matters, because we are not in a position, neither legally nor factually, to do anything about it.”

Asked about “legally” Rabbi Feldman answered: “Well, legally, this was the responsibility of the organisation that I worked for, not my own personal obligation, and all of those legal obligations were taken over by the directors who took over my position at the time. You know, all claims relating to the past were undertaken, legally, by the incoming directors. So this was what I mean when I say “legally”.

Rabbi Feldman repeatedly told the Commission that he had neither money or assets.

Rabbi Dr David Slovin now heads the Yeshiva College.

Naomi Sharp asked him: Who is responsible, then – and I’ll ask you both you, Rabbi Slavin and you, Rabbi Feldman – who is responsible for redress for child sexual abuse experienced at Yeshiva College prior to 2003? Rabbi Slavin, may I start with you.

Rabbi Slavin responded: The letter that I wrote spelled out – the purpose of this letter was that we found that the interim findings were confusing the entities and we wanted to clarify the timelines. Basically, the allegations would have taken place around 2003. The entity which we are responsible for, I’m responsible for now, was only created in 2008, and I became director, which is neither here nor there, only at the end of the 2012, and that was the purpose of this. I was just pointing that matters – allegations and matters that took place long before this entity was formed – it didn’t seem fair to me that it was being expected that we should be able to be the ones responsible for it.

Naomi Sharp asked: “Does it seem to you tat something is falling through the cracks here?”

Rabbi Slavin responded: “Absolutely. I’m not making any – in terms  of the victims, or the survivors, there should be a lot  more clarity as to where they should be going to have proper and comprehensive and dignified redress, and that’s not happening.

She asked Rabbi Feldman: “Rabbi Feldman, does it seem to you that something is falling through the cracks here?

He responded: “I really am not sure how to answer that question, because if we are talking about legal obligations that come out of civil litigation then there is absolutely nothing stopping the survivors, the victims, to be able to take that action against the institution that has failed him, and I believe that there is such a case on foot – I believe. I’m not kept abreast of this. So, if that is  the case, I’m not sure what it means, that it’s going through the cracks, other than the concept that every organisation of any type of substance should have a redress scheme.

Naomi Sharp: But it doesn’t seem that your organisation does for child sexual abuse that occurred in the college prior to 2003?

Rabbi Feldman: That was another organisation. That wasn’t the same organisation at all.

Naomi Sharp: But you were responsible for that organisation, Rabbi Feldman?

Rabbi Feldman: I was responsible, and the new directors took over responsibility for whatever had occurred in the past.

Naomi Sharp: Did they take over responsibility for making apologies to the victims of child sexual abuse?

Rabbi Feldman: In regard to the documents that we filed, that we had when the arrangement took place and when they took over, I think all our discussions were in regard to financial liabilities. All financial, all, in every form of financial liability, is taken over by the new directors.

Now, when we speak about any other aspect, which will include apologies, that is something that I publicly gave and I privately gave and I offered any type of help that  I’m able to provide, other than financial help, which  I simply am unable to provide.

Naomi Sharp turned the morning;s hearing and asked Rabbi Smukler about mesira  and loshon hora: Rabbi Smukler, do you think there’s room in the child protection policies in Yeshivah Colleges in Melbourne to make it expressly clear that those principles of Jewish law have no application where child sexual abuse is concerned?”

He replied: “I think they completely align with the policies, yes, and it’s probably worthwhile incorporating them with clarity.”

All rabbis agreed with this and also that shunning of members of the community is unacceptable with Anton Block commenting “to shun is tobe complicit in the abuse that has been perpetrated to the victim and there is place for that in our society whatsoever.”

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