Thursday, December 18, 2003

PRIMROSE PATH: Book About The Case of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks

Libel chill leaves children's author feeling censored OPINIONS / Carol Matas's novel about a Jewish school and a child-abusing rabbi touched a nerve in Winnipeg. A synagogue cancelled her appearance amid threats of litigation.
By Marc Hubert
The Globe and Mall (Toronto) - December 19, 1995 
For more information on this case: CLICK HERE
FALLOUT from a high-profile investigation of child-abuse allegations against a former Manitoba rabbi has created a new form of libel chill for a Winnipeg author of children's books.  
Carol Matas - Author
Carol Matas had been invited to speak in February at an interfaith luncheon sponsored by the Sisterhood of Winnipeg's Shaarey Zedek synagogue. But her appearance was cancelled after the congregation received a legal opinion suggesting the synagogue could be sued for publication of a libel if it permitted Matas to speak. 

"This is paranoia of the worst sort and censorship in the worst way. Libel chill isn't a strong enough term. Basically, they're censoring me and not the book. Somehow, I am no longer acceptable," Matas said recently. 

Book about Rabbi Ephraim Bryks
What's prompting the controversy is Matas's latest novel, The Primrose Path. Published by Winnipeg's Blizzard Publishing, it's the story of a Jewish school enduring a child-abusing rabbi. The case bears some similarities to a Winnipeg police investigation of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks, former principal of the Torah Academy in Winnipeg. Now closed, Torah Academy was a school operated by Herzlia-Adas Yeshrun, an Orthodox congregation formerly led by Bryks, now living in New York. 

After a year-long review, Manitoba's public prosecutions office last month decided that no Criminal Code charges were warranted against Bryks, who was previously investigated for similar allegations by Winnipeg police and the city's child and family services department in 1987 and 1988. 

The Case of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks - Alleged sexual predator
After a 1994 CBC documentary outlining other child-abuse allegations involving Bryks (which was broadcast before the police resumed their second investigation), the rabbi launched a defamation lawsuit against his accusers and the CBC. But beyond a preliminary notice, these cases have not progressed. Two years after the 1988 report by the city department, Bryks left Winnipeg for New York. 

While Matas says she was only asked to deliver a speech, the synagogue maintains that she was going to speak about her new book. By acquiescing to the threat of litigation, the synagogue's decision, to some, appears to be a highly unusual instance of the suppression of an author's freedom of expression, especially since no defamation lawsuits have been commenced against the book, which was published last September. 

Matas, who is emphatic that her book isn't based on Bryks, describes The Primrose Path as "a universal story which I based on research across North America. And in two other communities where I've spoken besides Winnipeg, people in the audience believe that the book is about a specific case in their community. It says to me that I'm doing my job as a writer because it is a universal story." 

Matas also says she is very upset about the synagogue's cancellation, initiated, it said, because of a "scheduling conflict." "I think it's shameful and outrageous. . . . And being unable to have me as a speaker because they're afraid that someone might sue them is scary business." 

Matas says she learned from Shaarey Zedek's president, Samuel Wilder, that her invitation had been cancelled because the synagogue's lawyers said that since "the story in The Primrose Path so closely parallels what happened in Winnipeg, the synagogue would be subject to a defamation action if they let me speak." 

Contacted earlier this month, Wilder refused to answer any questions for The Globe and Mail, saying "this isn't an issue for the press." 

Denise Waldman, president of the synagogue's Sisterhood, was equally reticent about answering questions and, she said, "if there is any Sisterhood board member who speaks to you, they will have to answer to me. I'm a young president of a flourishing sisterhood and we don't need any garbage." 

The Sisterhood's move is, however, attracting negative attention from both inside and outside Winnipeg. Penny Dickens, executive director of the Writers Union of Canada, for one, condemned the decision. "They took the easy way out. It certainly wasn't a heroic decision - they've silenced a writer. . . . This isn't chill, it's a major freeze." 

While characterizing libel chill as a term usually involving state action, Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby had "grave doubts" regarding the legal opinion. "Unless they knew in advance that she's going to be defaming someone, they wouldn't be responsible for giving her a platform." 

Ruby also deplored the Sisterhood's cancellation of Matas's address. "They don't understand literature and its role in a free society. It's a message from the community that we don't want to talk about that subject matter. And then authors won't write books like that. It's unhealthy and shortsighted." 

David Matas, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer and cousin of the author, agreed with Ruby. "Her work is a work of fiction. It doesn't identify a specific person. It's most unusual for a libel suit to come out of a fictional account," Matas said. 

However, Julian Porter, a Toronto lawyer noted for his expertise in libel and defamation, said that it is possible that the author of a fictional book could be sued for libel and that the synagogue could be sued, in turn, by allowing Carol Matas to speak. Generally speaking, he said, the test is if the work of fiction refers, or is capable of referring, to a real person. Although there are no Canadian precedents, civil liability for such cases has been found in the United States, England and Australia. 

Porter qualified his comments by noting that these types of cases are very rare. Yet, about 15 years ago, he successfully settled a libel case involving Toronto author Ian Adams, who wrote a novel suggesting that a government representative was part of a Communist spy ring. 

Porter predicted that to win such a case at trial a lawyer would have to put a number of people in the witness box, each of whom believed that the book was about the allegedly defamed person. To safely write a roman a clef, Porter recommended that writers should change a host of personal details. "Changing a couple of little things isn't enough." 

But Matas's Winnipeg-based publisher, Anna Synenko, dismisses the possibility of libel action involving The Primrose Path. "We haven't received any libel suits yet and I don't think we will. I really don't understand what the Sisterhood's problem is. The book is based on a large amount of research and not on one incident." 

Matas is the author of 15 books, most aimed at readers aged 10 to 17. Her novels include Daniel's Story, commissioned by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, and Sworn Enemies, which won the National Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor award in 1993. 

For more information on this case: CLICK HERE

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