An orthodox Jewish religious leader said he “forgot” about a boy who called him to say he had been sexually abused at the Yeshivah Centre in Sydney because he thought it must be a prank – a judgment he said he came to “profoundly regret”.
Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, a senior judge of the Sydney Beth Din rabbinical court, now worked with victims of child sexual abuse and encouraged them to go to police without fear, he told the royal commission into institutional responses into child sex abuse on Wednesday.
Gutnick said he received the phone call in 1987, when he was a teacher at the orthodox Yeshivah Centre Bondi, and it was the first time he had heard of sexual abuse there.
Gutnick said he first spoke to an “older boy” who told him he had a “younger boy” with him who had something to tell him.
“He then put the younger male on the phone and [he] told me he had been sexually abused by Daniel Robert Hayman, ‘Gug’,” Gutnick said.
“At the time I received the call I thought this was a hoax or a prank, and entertained the notion that the older boy might just be trying to get Gug into trouble, especially as the call was anonymous.”
He reported the call to the Yeshivah Centre.
“I then subsequently forgot about the phone call because I thought it was nothing more than children playing a prank,” he told the commission.
Gutnick became emotional as he described how in 2011 a man asked to meet him.
“This proved to be a life-changing experience,” Gutnick said before commissioner Justice Jennifer Coate.
“At my house the man asked me if I remembered receiving a phone call from a young boy in the 1980s, during which the young boy reported Gug for child sexual abuse. He told me that it was him, and that Gug had sexually abused him.
“I was shocked. It was the first time I had come face-to-face with a victim.”
Gutnick began to shake as he told the commission at Melbourne’s county court that after speaking to the victim he resolved to do everything in his power to make sure the voices of sex abuse victims were heard.
On 11 September, 2013, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, Gutnick said he issued an apology to child abuse victims.
“For whatever reason a culture of cover-up, often couched in religious terms, pervaded our thinking and our actions,” he said.
“It has also become clear that we have not handled this in an appropriate manner.”
Gutnick made it clear that the rabbinic law of mesirah – the prohibition of a Jew informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities – did not apply to sexual abuse cases.
Anyone who reported abuse to police should never be labelled a “moser” (informer) he said.
Other victims who gave evidence before the commission described how the fear of breaching mesirah within the orthodox Jewish community prevented them speaking out. When they did go to police, they were labelled mosers and threatened with excommunication, they said.
But Gutnick said his advice to victims was “do it through the courts”, he told the commission.
“It’s the only way you will get justice. A rabbi can’t issue a summons or compel people to give evidence; we have zero ability to investigate these things.”
But he acknowledged some rabbis from his orthodox Chabad sect still argued that such matters should not be taken outside the Jewish community, and should be handled only by a rabbinical court.
The threat of mesirah continued to be used by some leaders to regain power and control over victims and isolate them from the community, he said, which he described as a “gross misuse of rabbinic power”.
“The reality is the people who are saying, ‘go to rabbinical courts’ are not saying to do that out of religious fervour to keep the [Jewish] law,” he told the commission.
“They’re saying it that way to hush it up, to cover it up, to prevent the victim from finding redress. There is no doubt at all: mesirah has no application whatsoever to instances of child sexual abuse. To use mesirah in this way is an abomination.”
It was a Jewish person’s “halachic” – legal – obligation to report abuse to police and there was no need to receive permission from a rabbi to do so, he said.
He said religious institutions had been prepared to sacrifice victims to protect themselves and their organisations, and had done so through bullying and intimidation. Some victims were still too scared to come forward because of that, he said.
“I believe that the victims of child sexual abuse and their families are, and especially the ones that have come forward, the bravest of the brave, and I believe God is with them more than he may ever be with me,” Gutnick said.
The hearing continues.
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