Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse : “He is attacking Chabad

Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, the current president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia  was quizzed at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing in Melbourne on Friday about a text he sent in which he wrote about Zephaniah Waks “He is attacking Chabad

During his evidence, Rabbi Kluwgant said: I might have sent that yes” when quizzed about a text message relating to whistleblower Manny Waks’s father Zephaniah. He was asked if he had sent… “Zephaniah is killing us. Zephaniah is attacking Chabad. He is a lunatic on the fringe, guilty of neglect of his own children. Where was he when all this was happening? ” Rabbi Kluwgant responded: “I may have sent that, yes”

He told the Commission he is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria and is currently general manager of cultural and spiritual services at Jewish Care Victoria and he works as a minister for the Chabad Institutions of Australia.

Quizzed on the Rabbinical Council of Victoria by Counsel assisting the Commission Maria Gerace, Rabbi Kluwgant told the Commission: “Initially it was set up to be a rather insular organisation as support for rabbis providing professional development and support.  When I took on the role as president I expanded those so that it would be engaged with the broader community not just the Jewish community through a range of multi-faith and multicultural initiatives as well.”

Ms Gerace asked Rabbi Kluwgant: “One of the difficulties that appears from the evidence that has been heard before this Commission was the means by which affected members of congregations may take action against, say a rabbi for instance, who they feel may have  transgressed  rabbinic law or has acted in a way that is injurious to them. What role can the RCV in being a means by which these concerns can be addressed?”

Rabbi Kluwgant replied by saying that every rabbi’s contract with their synagogue or community contingent upon membership of the RCV. He said that if that were the case there RCV would be in a better position  “to take action or to have mandatory policies that affect all rabbis.” He added that rabbis’ sermons remained a matter between them and their communities and not the business of the RCV.

Ms Gerace asked Rabbi Kluwgant: “Would the RCV consider a formal dispute resolution process?  If a rabbi was a member of the RCV, would you be able to make membership conditional the rabbi submitting to a clearly articulated dispute resolution process?”  Rabbi Kluwgant said that he thought that would be “very beneficial”.

When questioned about ORA, Rabbi Kluwgant told the Commission that the organisation has 119 members on its registry and confirmed that Rabbi Telsner was numbered among them.

Ms Gerace then broached the subject of Rabbi Kluwgant’s position as a chaplain of the Victorian police. In June 2011, victim AVB [name withheld] sent an email containing an RCV 2010 resolution and a police document urging all those with information on child sexual police to go to the police. She asked Rabbi Kluwgant, who admitted to having been a recipient: “After that email was sent you expressed to AVB a view that he should not have sent that email”. Rabbi Kluwgant said that he knew AVB as a friend and was unaware at that time that AVB was a victim adding that he had been co-operating with the police to encourage those with information to report to the police and that Rabbi Telsner had been part of the process writing a letter which was to be displayed at the Yeshivah Centre . He said: “My feeling was, that this email which I received from AVB , although it was a brilliant email and completely correct and I had no issue with its content I believe it would have had a consequential impact on the work to date that I had done in my capacity as Victoria police chaplain working together with the Yeshivah.” Rabbi Kluwgant said he had that in his capacity as police chaplain he brokered a meeting between the child sexual assault team at Moorabin Police and the Yeshivah because he was aware there issues.

Ms Gerace asked Rabbi Kluwgant how he became aware of those issues. Rabbi Kluwgant responded: “There was chatter within the community.” Ms Gerace asked Rabbi Kluwgant if the chatter “that there was going to be resistance to the process”.  Rabbi Kluwgant continued: “There was not a lot of communication between the committee of management and the members of community and there were some concerns as to what was going on. This was around at the time when there was significant press around this issue and there were questions as to  how it was going to be handled I saw that had the opportunity and felt I had a role to play in trying to address that.”  On further questioning about members of the community might be reluctant to engage with the police, Rabbi Kluwgant said: “I think it would be fair to say that.” Ms Gerace asked if engaging with police  “was new territory  having to deal with these matters publicly”. Rabbi Kluwgant said to was not just new ground for the Yeshivah but for the entire Jewish community of Victoria.

He said another fair comment was Ms Gerace’s statement that” people would be reluctant to go to the police unless it was an endorsement of their rabbi”.

The Commission was told that, as part of the process of cooperating the police child sexual abuse unit Rabbi Zvi Telsner had agreed to write a letter in June 2011 and post it at the entrance to the Yeshivah Centre.

Counsel for Manny and Zephaniah Waks Melinda Richards asked Rabbi Kluwgant if he had sent a text message to Zeddy Lawrence, the editor of The Australian News about Zephaniah Waks’s evidence. Rabbi Kluwgant said he did not recall.  She then read the text: “Zephaniah is killing us. Zephaniah is attacking Chabad. He is a lunatic on the fringe, guilty of neglect of his own children. Where was he when all this was happening? ” Rabbi Kluwgant responded: “I may have sent that, yes”

Following a line of questioning about an apology from the RCV at the time David Cyprys was found guilty of child excuse charges, Christine Hanscombe representing victims AVA and AVR asked Rabbi Kluwgant if the RCV under his presidency at the time had made no apology to the victims. He agreed that there had been no apology and that there should have been one made.

Rabbi Kluwgant agreed with Remy Van Der Weil counsel appearing for two victims who stated that before the news broke publicly  “there is a history of confused messages to the community in terms of what they and what they can’t report to the police.” Rabbi Kluwgant also agreed with Van Der Weil’s statement that according to Jewish law, child sex abuse “is akin to murder”.

Rabbi Kluwgant stated that “there were people who were reticent to go to the police with complaints they may have had against individuals”.

When questioned about apologies to victims, Rabbi Kluwgant said: “Last week I penned a personal apology to two particular victims whom I know have issues with me personally. It was an unequivocal apology taking into account their pain and suffering for anything that I may have done to contribute to their pain and suffering. It was a very emotional, a very honest apology and it was done in good faith without pomp and ceremony. It was not broadcast to the community. It was a direct apology to those individuals.”

Remy Van Der Weil offered Rabbi Kluwgant the opportunity to apologise there and then to victim AVB.

Rabbi Kluwgant said of AVB: “I have known him since he was very young. I have always considered him to be a close friend I was his counsellor when was young.   His father, before he passed away  asked me to keep an eye on all of his children. I know him very well. I have only ever wanted to support to the best of my ability AVB. Once again, if anything I have said or done in any way has contributed to the pain and suffering that a victim feels, I unreservedly apologise for that.”

Remy Van Der Weil asked Rabbi Kluwgant: “In terms of the community in which he seeks still to be a member, what would you to say those people who have shunned him or isolated him or ignored him or insulted him?”

Rabbi Kluwgant responded:  “I would say to those people and to any individual who has done anything to shame or shun a victim of child sexual abuse for having gone to the police or taken action to protect themselves, I would say to them shame on you and you should learn from your mistakes and never repeat them.”

Rabbi Kluwgant completed his evidence by reading out the following statement:

I am deeply disturbed and distressed about what I have learned over the past two weeks. I have personally apologised to victims of child sexual abuse for any contribution I may have made to their suffering through my words and actions. I have been at the forefront of addressing the religious leadership’s approach and response to the issue of child sexual abuse. I have personally accompanied a victim of child sexual abuse to the police and supported him to make his disclosure to the police. I have also encouraged an alleged perpetrator to go to the police and went with him to make a statement. I have worked with organisations  to create opportunities for the professional development of rabbis in the areas of family violence and child sexual abuse.  I have consistently said on and off the record that Mesirah does not apply and I have encouraged people to disclose information about child sexual abuse to the police. I have initiated a process for all synagogues in Australia to have an accredited child protection policy for their synagogue. I have only ever wanted to help and support victims and have never  intentionally do anything to harm them. I want to acknowledge that the issue of child sexual abuse was not handled well in the past and that there is still a lot that needs to be done to create and foster a safe and welcoming and supportive environment  for victims. It is my hope that we as a community will  take lessons from the last two weeks  and be able to move together in a positive manner for the benefit of all concerned.”

Rabbi Joshua Smukler is currently principal  of the Yeshiva Beth Rivkah College and was the last to give evidence before Commission.

Rabbi Smukler told the Commission that he had spent 12 years “at a very large school in Sydney”. Rabbi Smukler indicated that he implemented revision of Yeshivah policies when he took up his new position in August 2010.

He told Maria Gerace, counsel assisting the Commission that in the event of any complaint it would be reported to a member of the Executive. He said his preference would be discuss the matters “face to face” and that he might follow up with an email and document the issue.

Commenting on the previous history of lack of documentation, Ms Gerace learned from Rabbi Smukler that the current policy was to make records of all complaints made.

In a statement tendered to the Commission Rabbi Smukler said that he was not informed when he took over as principal of moves to extradite David Kramer from the U.S.

I enquired of people who would have been around at that time. There seemed to be little knowledge and  little clarity that I could obtain.”

He said that he had made enquiries about David Kramer from Rabbi Glick. “He did tell me that Rabbi Groner was involved and that Hersch Cooper was involved in managing David Kramer as was he.”

When asked by Ms Gerace if Rabbi Glick had told him that the Yeshivah Centre had paid for David Kramer to leave the country, Rabbi Smukler responded: “No, he didn’t tell me that.”

Rabbi Smukler said that he got little information from Rabbi Glick about David Cyprys and that he asked for information from lang-standing teacher. “I was trying to fish for some information – it was very limited and very vague.” He added: “I was just more concerned about simply keeping kids safe.”

He agreed that he was trying to find out what the school knew.He said: “Either people didn’t know or they actually didn’t remember or the core person who dealt was no longer around. And that’s what I had drawn as a conclusion as to what was going on.”

He also agreed that if the school had known that David Cyprys was a risk to children and they didn’t remove from a children’s protection point of view “it was a problem”. He further agreed that even if a person considered a risk was undergoing counselling he should still not have contact with children.

Ms Gerace said that the school became  aware in 2010 of his involvement in doing a first aid course with students and you became aware of it.

Rabbi Smukler responded: “It was something my teachers brought to my attention via an advert that had been put up.. I had no prior knowledge that he was running it.”

He added that it was not run in the school but through Chabad Youth.

Ms Gerace said that Rabbi Smukler visited Sydney in June 2011 and from his statement said “In June 2011 you were visiting Sydney and you received a call from a community therapist…she could not tell me who and she could not tell me what but she had a pretty serious disclosure of a child  sexual abuse matter in relation to Ezzy Kestcher. She told me she had contacted the police  and she told the police that she had contacted you. Is that right? Rabbi Smukler: “Yes.”

The Commission was told Kestecher was running a choir at the time and had been instructed to stop but persisted to keep it going.

Ms Gerace said that shortly thereafter a student made a disclosure to Rabbi Glick outside of school hours. Rabbi Smukler agreed that Rabbi Glick informed him and showed him notes.  He said that he was present when Rabbi Glick reported it to the authorities and the police. Ms Gerace said “the allegation involved inappropriate touching”.

When quizzed on why the parents of the victim did not go to the police , Rabbi Smukler said that there had been concerns about his mental health and that Kestecher had suicidal tendencies.. [Kestecher committed suicide in April last year].

He said that Kestecher was sent a letter by Rabbi Telsner to Kestecher telling he was to stay away from the Yeshiva Centre.  Ms Gerace said a letter had been received from a barrister in July 2012  to the effect that charges against Kestecher had been dropped and that the school should let him back on the premises and that the school had refused to do so. Rabbi Shmukler said he had formed and acted on his view that Kestecher was not fit to be around children.

Mrs Gerace told Rabbi Smukler that on August 8 2012  that he got a call from a very upset parent to tell him that her son had just gone on an excursion and that Mr Kestecher was the bus driver and he had independently obtained employment with a touring coach with a that was contracted to provide services to the school for activities. He agreed.

She went on to say that Rabbi Smukler  had an unpleasant battle  with the VTC inclusive of legal threats because you insisted that they “not permit Mr Kestecher to drive any bus used to provide services to the school.

Ms Gerace acknowledged that Rabbi Smukler offered rabbinic counselling saying “I take it you would make available to victims of Kramer and Cyprys  access to professional counselling”.  Rabbi Smukler responded saying: ” 100%. Rabbis are not qualified to provide all the counselling a victim of their family may require but they can offer them the support  to get there. ” He confirmed that this would be paid for by the Yeshivah Centre…correcting that it would be paid for by the schools if the offences were committed there.

On the subject of apologies, Rabbi Smukler told the Commission: “It’s a Jewish concept but it’s also an obvious concept that  if you are apologising for something you should spell what you are apologising for and it’s pretty darn obvious that if you just say to people ‘we apologise’  it’s far more effective and emotionally fulfilling to say we apologise for this and that, for this and that and listening to a lot of evidence, seen a lot of evidence come to the fore in preparing for this Commission and I have seen an enormous amount in the last two weeks there’s a lot of details, that I would, in hindsight, with the knowledge I have to today would have expressed to victims and would love to express to victims  I would love to express to victims they need to hear it and we morally need to do it  religiously and  in every which way.”

Ms Gerace said ” Rabbi this is the clearest statement we’ve had from someone about recognising the need for the Centre to acknowledge the wrongs…to articulate them. We have had witnesses agree         that the first wrong was committed by the perpetrator and that’s a separate issue but  if there’s been shortcomings or failure to act  that have lead to harm by leaders and others that should have known better or acted to protect them…that’s a second wrong.    That in itself need to be acknowledged for there to be healing  What would you propose going forward to provide some healing  given what you have heard in this Commission and both from the perspective of healing for the victims and morally for you and the school and the Centre?”

Rabbi Smukler proposed “a sincere and detailed apology” take place both personally and in a public forum.

On questioning about sex education, Rabbi Smukler said that there had been none in the past but now there are special workshops and that some of the parents needed to be educated on how to educate their children on sexual matters.

Rabbi Joshua Smukler informed the Commission of changes which had been made in the College’s procedures. One of the Commissioners asked him if the new practices in place would ensure that children would report instances of child sex abuse early rather than wait until much later. Rabbi Smukler said that even is a family unit children often have difficulty in reporting abuse but the school could now facilitate and make dialogue easier.

Ms Gerace’s last question to Rabbi Smukler…and the last question of the hearing.

“You have been instrumental in bringing through a change of thinking on these issues within the school  May I ask you…A number of people who were members or still are members still  somewhat disenfranchised as a result of the 2011 events and the evidence we have heard here…would you be willing  to work with them in some process if they wanted to seek to bring some form reconciliation or reintegration if they wanted back into the community   heal or work through past or current grievances.

Rabbi Joshua Smukler’s final statement: “I wouldn’t just be willing…I would be very, very keen.”

The Commission was chaired by Justice Jennifer Coate.