• Print


By BERNIE BELLAN (Posted Feb. 24, 2018)
On Monday, February 20, CBC News broke a story about criminal charges that had been laid against Rabbi Yacov Simmonds involving allegations of sexual impropriety. The story went on to note that Rabbi Simmonds  had fled Winnipeg prior to a warrant being issued for his arrest and was currently at large, likely in the United States.

Over the years we’ve occasionally delved into stories that were painful for some in our audience to read. Typically, they involved allegations of sexual misconduct involving someone in an authority position. How to handle those stories with sensitivity – taking into account the feelings of individuals or families who may have been involved in what was alleged to have happened, has always been a challenge.
Unfortunately, the manner in which various media juxtaposed the story of charges being laid against Rabbi Simmonds with the fact he had been employed by the Jewish Learning Centre here unfairly besmirched the reputation of the JLC and individuals associated with it. For reasons that I will explain, the JLC  was constrained from issuing any public statements about Rabbi Simmonds having been released from his employment there in February 2016.

I had my own small role to play in the story that was first broken on CBC Radio and on the CBC website  this past week about Rabbi  Simmonds. I had been contacted by a CBC reporter by the name of Kristin Annable on Monday, February 12 - a full week before the story broke publicly, and when I heard what Kristin was working on I knew this story was going to be a big one.
I had some prior dealings with Kristin relating to another story, so when she called me to ask me whether I knew a rabbi by the name of Yacov Simmonds, I wasn’t hesitant to answer her questions. I knew Kristin to be a good reporter and, once she explained why she was calling, while I was shocked with what she had to tell me, I was reasonably certain that she was going to be deliberate in going about gathering more information for her story.
Kristin asked me whether I knew anything about what had happened to Rabbi Simmonds when he was with the Jewish Learning Centre. I told her that what I had heard was that Rabbi Simmonds had been working as a fundraiser for the JLC, but that he wasn’t doing a good enough job, so he was let go.
Kristin said to me that she had received a tip that Rabbi Simmonds had been let go for another reason – something to do with some sort of sexual misdeed or misdeeds that were alleged to have occurred long ago. She asked me whether I might be of help to her in tracking down the story. I said that I would see what I could find out.
I made a few phone calls – and found out from one source that Rabbi Simmonds’ family was apparently living in Detroit. I phoned Kristin back with that information. At that point Kristin told me the name of the family of the complainant (or complainants – Kristin wasn’t sure) who had made the allegations against Rabbi Simmonds.
When she told me the name of the family of the compainant (or complainants I was shocked. I won’t say why I was shocked, but I did explain to Kristin the reason for my reaction.

The next day, as it turns out, both Kristin and I contacted the media division of the Winnipeg Police Service – both without knowing that the other was doing the same thing. We both happened to speak to a Constable Jay Murray. Constable Murray gave us both the same information: that Rabbi Simmonds had been charged with a total of eight counts of three different criminal offences, all of a sexual nature. Further, Constable Murray informed both of us that a warrant had been issued for Rabbi Simmonds’ arrest last October, but that Rabbi Simmonds was evading arrest. When I said to Constable Murray that I understood that Rabbi Simmonds was believed to be in Detroit, he said that the WPS had investigators looking for him, but there would now be an additional problem of applying for extradition if Rabbi Simmonds was indeed in the United States.
I asked Constable Murray why there had been no public statement issued at the time that Rabbi Simmonds had been charged with eight criminal offences, nor when an arrest warrant had been issued for him. Constable Murray replied that the WPS does not generally release information about anyone who has been charged with a criminal offence, although it does do that in certain instances.

Now, this is where the story takes a real twist. I remained in contact with Kristin Annable throughout the week of February 12-15, and we agreed to keep one another informed as to what either of us might have learned about the story. For my part I contacted several individuals who, I thought, might be in a position to shed some light on what might have happened with Rabbi Simmonds.
I learned that Rabbi Simmonds had, indeed, been dismissed from his employment by the Jewish Learning Centre early in 2016 – apparently as soon as the board of the JLC found out about the allegations that were being made against him. (Apparently though, he was still on the JLC’s payroll even after his dismissal, and  while the terms of his departure were negotiated between representatives of Rabbi Simmonds and the JLC.)
What is important to understand moreover – and this we learned in speaking with a representative of the Jewish Learning Centre, is that no one from the JLC was able to make any public statement about the allegations that had been made about Rabbi Simmonds by the complainant (or complainants, as the case may be). At this time we will not indicate whether there was more than one complainant or what their gender or genders may be.) Here is what we were told by that representative of the JLC in an email: “In 2016, we did not refer to the abuse publicly because our hands (or mouths) were tied, because the abused …refused to report to the police at that time or publicize it. We could not state something to which we were not a party. The text of the public statement was prepared by the lawyers as part of the negotiated agreement, in absence of any reference to the misconduct.”
That reference to a public statement is with regard to something that appeared in the August 2016 newsletter of the JLC, when it was stated that “Rabbi Simmonds is embarking on a career change; by mutual agreement he is no longer part of the rabbinical staff or administration of Chabad Lubavitch of Winnipeg. “
At that point there had still not been a complaint filed with the WPS about Rabbi Simmonds.

In October 2017, subsequent to an investigation into Rabbi Simmonds  having been conducted by the WPS pursuant to a complaint or complaints (from one or more individuals), the WPS charged Rabbi Simmonds with a total of eight offences.
It is vitally important to note that the detective who was assigned to investigate Rabbi Simmonds had assured a representative of the JLC that the WPS would be issuing a public statement about the charges that had been laid against Rabbi Simmonds once he was arrested. The board of the JLC had, in fact, prepared a statement to be released to the public once the WPS issued its own statement - in reaction to the WPS statement.
Rabbi Simmonds, however, fled Winnipeg before the WPS was able to serve him with a warrant for his arrest. As a result, we are now told, the WPS did not issue any public statement about the charges that had been laid against him.  If Kristin Annable had not broken the story, therefore, it is quite possible that the charges against Rabbi Simmonds, the warrant for his arrest, and his subsequent fleeing the country – would all have remained unreported. (There is no indication that any other news outlet was on to this story. By the way, I had promised Kristin that I wouldn’t scoop her story.)

So – the story broke on February 20. The CBC website ran a huge picture of the Jewish Learning Centre and, in short order, the Free Press (which absolutely hates to be scooped by the CBC) ran a four column picture of Rabbi Simmonds. Let’s face it: “Jews make news.”
Within less than 24 hours, other major news outlets picked up on it – and  the repercussions were being felt - totally unfairly, by the Jewish Learning Centre.
“Why didn’t they go public with the accusations against Rabbi Simmonds?” was the general question being asked on social media – with much worse comments also on display.  “Why was there a cover up?” others were asking of representatives of the JLC - in emails and in phone calls.
Then, to make matters worse, the Free Press ran a totally distorted story by Carol Sanders on Friday, February 23rd  with the headline  "Rabbi wanted for sex crimes ran Jewish school in city". That headline was so outrageously a lie that the Free Press eventually changed it to read "Rabbi wanted for sex crimes claimed leadership role Jewish school". That headline though was still an outright lie. Here is what the article had to say that supposedly showed that Rabbi Simmonds had a leadership role at the school that is part of the Jewish Learning Centre: Rabbi Simmonds is quoted in a 2011 article that ran in a Hebrew-language newspaper as having said that "We are running a day school that has classes through seventh grade. We have adult night classes and a very successful summer yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish school)... There are many young people here who are thirsty for knowledge."
Anyone with an ounce of intelligence and knowledge of English would understand that when Rabbi Simmonds was using the word “we”, he was referring to the Jewish Learning Centre as a whole - for which he worked as a fundraiser - not as a teacher. To extrapolate from that innocuous remark that he played a leadership role at the school is simply evidence of the Free Press’s determination to “get a story” - after they had been so badly scooped by the CBC.

Was there a cover-up?
The short answer is: not at all. As it turns out, as already mentioned, the JLC and Rabbi Simmonds had entered into a protracted legal negotiation over the terms of his dismissal. Someone’s employment can’t simply be terminated over allegations of something that has nothing to do with that person’s current work situation, unless there is a specific clause in a contract stipulating the possible reasons for someone’s dismissal.
Further, as has been noted, even when charges had been laid against Rabbi Simmonds,  the detective who was investigating Rabbi Simmonds for the WPS had assured a representative of the JLC that the WPS would make those charges public once Rabbi Simmonds was arrested. As a result, from what we have been told, the members of the board of the JLC were awaiting anxiously that public statement from the WPS. As mentioned, the board had even prepared a written statement that was ready to be released to the public once the WPS made public the charges against Rabbi Simmonds. But – there was never any public statement issued by the WPS.

And, let’s reiterate one salient aspect of the charges that have been leveled by the WPS against Rabbi Simmonds: They have nothing to do with Rabbi Simmonds’ employment by the Jewish Learning Centre. They relate to events that allegedly happened long before he began working for the JLC.
Many other individuals are charged with a criminal offence about whom we never hear anything from the WPS.  From what we are told, that is the case with the vast majority of individuals who are thusly charged.

Full credit to Kristin Annable and the CBC for breaking this story, but the aspersions that are being cast upon the Jewish Learning Centre are not fair. The Chabad movement in Winnipeg is a beacon of light for this community. It has long taken a public position firmly denouncing sexual abuse of any kind. That someone who was associated with them may have done something long ago that was reprehensible, but remained totally undisclosed, should not reflect upon that movement here in the least. There was no cover-up, nor should anyone find fault in any way with how the Jewish Learning Centre conducted itself in this whole affair.
For that matter, the board of the Jewish Learning Centre acted immediately upon being informed of the allegations leveled against Rabbi Simmonds. He was relieved of his duties in short order. Constable Murray of the WPS also emphasized to me during a phone conversation that representatives of the Jewish Learning Centre cooperated fully with the WPS during its investigation of Rabbi Simmonds.

Unfortunately, there have been so many stories in recent years of clergy betraying a trust and engaging in improper sexual activity that many members of the public were quick to jump to conclusions about what happened in this case. There were aspersions cast upon the Jewish Learning Centre and individuals associated with it will be left to pick up the pieces of the damage now done.

Update to article (posted Feb. 25)

We received a phone call from Rabbi Avrohom Altein of the Jewish Learning Centre a short while ago. Rabbi Altein said that the complainant (or one of the complainants, as the case may be) had decided to send Rabbi Altein a short note to indicate how much that person appreciated the help Rabbi Altein had given that person. Here is what the note said: 

“Coming forward about the sexual abuse I experienced as a child was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do but the fact that my rabbi, Rabbi Altein was so supportive really helped give me the courage I needed to go to the police and begin to deal with the demons from my past.”