"Regardless of whether mandatory reporting laws were in place, any right-thinking person would have realised that the sodomy of children was a serious crime which merited police investigation, no matter who the alleged perpetrator was. It is offensive and irresponsible to suggest that an 11-year-old child could have consented to sexual activity with someone 10 years his senior – in fact Australian law has always deemed such behaviour to be statutory rape."
For immediate release
Monday 24 June 2013
[The Australian victims advocacy group] Tzedek strongly condemns and is appalled by the callous views and behaviour of Rabbi Boruch Lesches as reported in The Age.
We expect the police to thoroughly investigate all claims relating to the rape and sexual abuse of children at Yeshivah, irrespective of when this is alleged to have occurred, and to vigorously pursue any perpetrators and their enablers to the full extent of the law, including considering extradition of anyone now living overseas who is credibly accused of committing a serious criminal offence.
If Rabbi Lesches was indeed aware of the allegations that children under Yeshiva’s care had been assaulted and raped by a person known to him, his behaviour is both immoral and unfathomable. Regardless of whether mandatory reporting laws were in place, any right-thinking person would have realised that the sodomy of children was a serious crime which merited police investigation, no matter who the alleged perpetrator was. It is offensive and irresponsible to suggest that an 11-year-old child could have consented to sexual activity with someone 10 years his senior – in fact Australian law has always deemed such behaviour to be statutory rape.
The alleged callous response of Rabbi Lesches to the claims – threatening to expel the victims as well as the perpetrators out of Yeshivah – is completely incomprehensible. It suggests he was blaming the vulnerable and innocent children for the horrible crimes that had been committed against them. It also indicates that the Rabbi did not care about the safety and well-being of anyone else outside his immediate community.
While it is pleasing to see that the Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV) is “appalled by, and unequivocally distances itself from, comments attributed to Rabbi Boruch Lesches”, what is the response of its NSW equivalent or the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia?
As anticipated, the RCV and others are attempting to minimise the extent of this problem claiming that “It is deeply regrettable and shocking that there still do exist (sic) some individuals out here on the fringe in the religious leadership world who take positions contrary to the clearcut contemporary halachic (Jewish law) approach on the matter of child sexual abuse."
It is disingenuous to suggest that Rabbi Lesches’ views are those of a fringe minority. Similar offensive comments and views have been expressed by numerous senior Orthodox Jewish figures throughout the world, not just Australia. These include but not limited to:
• Rabbi Manis Friedman, who, told young adult students that sex abuse was like a former case of diarrhoea – embarrassing but not worth mentioning (among several other offensive remarks);
• Rebbetzin Pnina Feldman, wife of Chabad NSW’s spiritual leader Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, who accused Tzedek Founder and CEO Manny Waks (and his family) of being a masser (police collaborator) for his work advocating for Jewish victims of child sexual abuse;
• Rabbi Elyakim Schlesenger, a Rosh Yeshiva (Yeshiva Head) in London, who blamed the sudden death of student from pneumonia on those who had reported another rabbi for sexually abusing women he was supposed to be counselling;
• Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, who told followers to ask a rabbi before reporting suspected child sexual abuse to police or child protection services and that no matter how bad the behaviour of ultra-Orthodox Jews may seem, they were better than the non-Jews;
• Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg who ruled that, because a rabbi did not penetrate his young victims there was therefore no abuse according to Torah law;
• Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University's rabbinical school, who said he didn’t try to stop child sex abuse at the high school because he could not be sure the allegations met halackic threshold for truth;
• Rabbi Yisroel Belsky who claimed the innocence of Rabbi Yosef Kolko “after conducting a thorough investigation” – this despite Rabbi Kolko subsequently pleading guilty to child sexual abuse;
• the countless allegations of cover-ups (including sending perpetrators overseas) within the Australian Jewish community by several prominent rabbis; and
• many, many more.
For this reason Tzedek stands by its original statement that Rabbi Lesches’ comments were “consistent with the approach of many senior orthodox Jewish figures in the community”. Contrary to the view of the RCV, and based on the evidence above, this statement is not “malicious in nature and incorrect”.
It is also important to note that Rabbi Lesches is a recognised leader within the global and influential Chabad movement and not a fringe figure as some are suggesting. He served as head of Yeshivah Sydney for 20 years and was Rabbi of the Australian capital for 25 years. Rabbi Lesches is now the mora d'asra (senior rabbi and community leader) of Chabad's main synagogue in Monsey, New York, and is often called on to act as a posek (decider of halakha, Jewish law) for Chabad followers worldwide.
In response to some criticism regarding the inclusion of Rabbi Meir Kluwgant, President of the RCV, in The Age article, we note its relevance due to the various positions he holds and the real or perceived conflicts of interest that exist. Besides from his role at the RCV, Rabbi Kluwgant is a police chaplain, rabbi at Jewish Care, a member of the Board of the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence, a senior member of the Melbourne Yeshivah community, the son of a senior member of the Melbourne Yeshivah community and a relative of Rabbi Avrohom Glick (former Yeshivah Principal whose recent evidence the Magistrate described as “unfathomable”).
In response to a part of the RCV statement: “In recent years the RCV, in conjunction with the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence (JTAFV), has held numerous training sessions for its members and members of the Victorian Rabbinate in general; these sessions have been focussed on appropriate response to disclosures of all forms of abuse, including the reporting of child sexual abuse to the police.”, we note that the RCV repeatedly emphasises the training it has provided to its members. However, training, and for that matter any policies and procedures, are only useful if there is a willingness and intention to implement these, and there is a culture that promotes respect for all. The head rabbi of Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Telsner, has undertaken this training but continues to behave in an unconscionable manner towards those who take a stance against child sexual abuse.
We note that Rabbi Lesches has now put out a statement claiming he was not called by the reporter. This has been denied by the journalist who said “In the days before the story was published, Fairfax Media sent emails to Rabbi Lesches' private email address, the main email address of the US Jewish community he leads and to one of his rabbinical colleagues in New York. A text message was also sent to Rabbi Lesches asking for him to respond.”
In his apology, Rabbi Lesches has also claimed, “In my present community, where I am the Rabbi, there is no reticence to contact the police. We do not hide from or cover up criminal behaviour. In our schools this is a known fact, and one of the reasons we, may G-d protect us, have to date not been afflicted with the evil disease of child sexual abuse.”
We find it implausible that there is no child sexual abuse within Rabbi Lesches’ community. Rather, it is much more plausible that the rabbi is simply unaware of these cases – because with views like his, which community member would want to divulge such information to their rabbi?
There is credible evidence that the covering up of criminal behaviour in both the Melbourne and Sydney ultra-Orthodox communities led to additional children being sexually abused by perpetrators who were known to authority figures in the schools. It is essential that the current and past school leaders give the police every assistance in bringing perpetrators to justice, no matter when the crimes were committed, both to assist past victims and to protect others from becoming victims.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, Tzedek had no involvement in the writing of the Fairfax article or the recording of the conversation with Rabbi Lesches; Tzedek Founder and CEO Manny Waks was simply contacted by the journalist, Richard Baker, for a statement on the story.
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