Testimony concerning crimes against students at Yeshiva Melbourne raises issues concerning treatment of sex offenders.
Whether a sexual attraction to young children can be “cured” is a controversial issue. Experts disagree as to whether paedophilia is caused by brain structure -- the way the brain is wired at the time of birth -- or by the environment in which a child is raised.
Authorities are equally divided as to whether an attraction to children can be effectively treated. What is clear is that attempts to “cure” offenders made by Yeshiva Melbourne were unsuccessful.
Not all individuals who feel a sexual desire for children actually molest them. Many paedophiles are capable of controlling their behaviour. In other cases, however, their actions lead to a prosecution for child rape or indecency.
During the last two decades, the Victorian legislature has amended and expanded the laws governing sexual contact with children. Under the current version of the law, sex crimes against children include the following:
An “indecent act” generally involves inappropriate touching.
Melbourne’s news media have given close attention to evidence of child sexual abuse at Yeshiva College. Two school employees have been convicted of sexual penetration or committing indecent acts with students who attended the school. School officials have been accused of covering up the employees’ misconduct.
Those incidents were among the scandals that prompted the formation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commission is reportedly investigating other allegations involving the Salvation Army, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and Swimming Australia.
The Royal Commission heard evidence that Yeshiva College officials tried to “cure” the employees by providing professional help. The employees were allowed to remain in their jobs despite school officials’ awareness of the allegations made against them.
Rabbi Zvi Telsner told the commission of his belief that paedophiles might be cured by counselling and spiritual guidance. He also suggested that if someone stopped committing offences for twenty years after attending therapy, there was a “good possibility” that the person had changed his life.
While some media reports express skepticism and even shock at Rabbi Telsner’s testimony, his views are in agreement with those of a number of professionals who work with sex offenders. While expert agreement is divided, it is reasonable to believe that former child molesters who have committed no new crimes for twenty years have at least learned to control their behaviour, even if they have not been “cured” of their sexual attraction to children.
Treatment programs for sex offenders are available throughout Australia. While studies of their effectiveness have reported widely varying results, recidivism (the commission of a new crime of the same type) is less common for treated sex offenders than for individuals convicted of other crimes.
Since not every sex crime is reported and not every offender is identified, recidivism statistics may not tell the whole story, but they do provide a basis for believing that therapy and other forms of treatment may be effective in changing behaviour. Of course, allowing an identified sex offender to continue working in a position of trust with children is a separate issue, one that Yeshiva College needs to address more candidly.