A senior Chabad rabbi in Australia apologized for letting down victims of abuse and admitted to having failed to report that an accused molester was planning on fleeing the country, in testimony before a government commission on Thursday.
Speaking before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney’s Rabbi Pinchus Feldman said that “we are deeply sorry that you have suffered abuse and that the Yeshiva Center in New South Wales failed in protecting you.”
Feldman, the senior Chabad emissary in NSW, added that it broke his heart “to hear of the suffering that victims of abuse and their families have endured.”
“I would like to now publicly state as not just a position of Jewish law but the official policy of the Chabad movement in New South Wales: the reporting of cases of abuse to the authorities is not just permitted but an obligation, a holy obligation that will keep our children safer and our communities healthier,” Feldman read from a prepared statement of the Chabad hassidic movement.
The ultra-Orthodox community has come under fire over allegations that it has swept reports of abuse under the rug. On Wednesday, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, a senior Chabad leader in Sydney and the head of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, told the commission that “a culture of cover-up, often couched in religious terms, pervaded our thinking and our actions.”
Gutnick and others, including victim’s advocate Manny Waks, have testified that those who have come forward have frequently been designated as informers and socially ostracized.
“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,” he said.
During the course of the hearing, Feldman admitted that he had failed to report that a community member identified only as AVL had informed him of his intention to flee the country shortly after being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Feldman confirmed that AVL, who left Australia within two days of the accusations, had informed him that he was considering traveling to America.
“The conversation was that I notified him that the authorities were already notified, that the process has begun. However, we on neither telling him to stay nor to leave, it is not up to us, we are not the police,” Feldman recalled, adding that he informed AVL that he would be unable to complete the process of rabbinic ordination if he left.
Asked if he felt a duty to call the police to inform them of the accused’s plans, Feldman replied that he “did not believe that I have that obligation.”
“If the charges are found to be correct, he can be extradited. I did not believe, and I do not believe at the moment, that within the framework of my role it is to be able to have to call the police to say, ‘This student may leave.’ Now, if this is something that I should have done, then this was an error of judgment,” he explained.
“I suppose that it was,” he said when pressed if he now believes his inaction to be in error. Feldman himself had previously been branded an informer following an incident in the 1970s when he called the police to report an abusive mother of a student, he told the commission.
“One of the issues that a number of the victims have referred to is the experience of being labeled a moser, an informer. I feel your pain acutely, partially because I myself have been at the receiving end of such accusations myself. I would never purport to compare my experience with your level of suffering, but I would like to express empathy as someone who has also been disparagingly called a moser,” he said.
Asked about testimony that several boys had reported instances of abuse to Rabbi Baruch Lesches, the head of the Yeshiva Center during the 1980s, Feldman said that the accusations had not been passed on to him.
Lesches failed to act on the accusations and even sent a preteen girl to live with the accused and his wife, the commission heard.
Following a series of incidents in which the accused paraded naked before her, the victim spoke to Lesches, according to testimony read to the commission.
“He said, ‘I do not believe you. Why would you invent such a story?’ I was crying. I said, ‘I’m not inventing this story. I’m not going back there.’ He said, ‘Go to school. Get over it,’” the victim was quoted as saying.
Asked about a police statement indicating that Lesches had informed Feldman that he had told abuser Daniel Hayman to stay away from younger boys, the rabbi responded that he did “not recall any such conversation at all.”
While maintaining that he was unaware at the time of the accusations against Hayman, Feldman admitted that he should have been informed.
Asked if he had been informed of any allegations, Feldman replied that he had not been, “to the best of my recollection.”