The Wisdom of Solomon And A Modern Tragedy
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Eight months after meeting and falling in love with an Austrian doctor, Cambridge graduate Beth Schlesinger abandoned her career and moved to Vienna to marry him. When the marriage began to go wrong, she agreed to try to patch things up by starting a family and they had twin sons. But rows over the children drove them further apart – and now she has lost custody of the four-year-old boys after an Austrian court ruled that her husband is a better parent.
Our correspondent has this comment on the case to date:
There was once a judge that had to make a difficult decision in a story most will know.
Both women insisted that the child in the custody case belonged to them. The judge called for a sword and ordered the child to be divided with equal shares for both claimants.
The first woman cried out for the child to be spared and given to her rival, the other agreed with the judge. Then the judge ruled that the first woman was surely the mother and the child was restored to her. The wisdom of King Solomon was legendary – all Israel was in awe of his judgements.
A judge is supposed to be independent, fair, and scrupulous in applying the law. Although this is a universal standard, it is too often found to be lacking in Austria where judges favour vested interests, fixing, or are simply mediocre. Despite their impressive credentials, their ‘intellectual rigour’ gives way to the desire to appease the Proporz system that afflicts public life. Dr Franz Fiedler, a former High Court judge and director of Transparency International has referred to the Austrian justice system as ‘corrupt’ an opinion that is generally reflected in the performance of many lawyers and judges. Whilst the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ may be beyond an ordinary judge, in Austria justice is often opaque and only available to the privileged and their connections.
In the case of Mrs Beth Alexander (formerly Schlesinger), a mother has been deprived of custody of her twin sons through irregular and seemingly corrupt practices, or at least this is what has been alleged by Jewish leaders in the United Kingdom. Divorce and custody battles are always difficult to resolve with children suffering most of the fallout. Nevertheless a judge has a duty to examine all of the information impartially and to reach a conclusion that is in the best interests of the children. Almost always, those interests are served when the mother has custody of the children with the father having fair access. Whether correct or not, most people accept that this is conventional wisdom.
Yet according to Beth Alexander when the marriage broke down, the police came to the marital home and her ex-husband, Dr Michael Schlesinger, a medical practitioner himself, attempted to have her admitted to a psychiatric hospital, the Otto Wagner Hospital. It is also the hospital where he is now employed, in a move that she alleges was in order to discredit her and so gain full custody of the twins. A later medical examination confirmed that Mrs Alexander was of sound mind and capable of being a good mother to her children. Yes despite this, the court awarded sole custody to the father allowing the mother twice weekly visitation rights at a cost of €50 per appointment. Quite apart from the departure from the norm where the mother might have expected custody and visiting rights, in Austria it is not only the other way round, but the mother has to pay a fee in order to see her children? The visits are also at times that make it impossible for her to hold an ordinary job, and any attempts to change this position have been rejected by the ex husband and the judge. In such circumstances one has to ask why the court did not want to require Dr Schlesinger to have an independent psychiatric assessment as well, but no examination has taken place. The reason it might be expected is that Beth Alexander raised questions about his character and behaviour. Does this lapse suggest a lack of impartiality and common justice? This situation has now prevailed for four years. Dr Schlesinger has failed to make any statement or explain himself and this apparent lack of cooperation has apparently not been reviewed by the court. It is also worth noting that it can be difficult for a foreigner (Mrs Alexander is British and like her former husband, a member of the Jewish community) to understand legal procedure in Austria and to avoid exploitation, meaning that the court should be under a moral obligation to extend every reasonable assistance to her. She feels that the reverse is evident.
The judge with oversight of the Schlesinger case is Frau Susanne Göttlicher. On her blog https://helpbeth.org/, Beth Alexander has commented that the judge appears to have delayed the case, shown favouritism, and can it be true that she alleges the judge is linked to friends of the Schlesinger family? She believes that Judge Göttlicher may have failed to seek advice about disqualifying herself from hearing the case on ethical grounds in order to assure absolute probity. A bid to have her replaced has so far failed. Furthermore, another unconnected judge, a member of the Jewish community in Vienna, has according to Beth Alexander, been active behind the scenes in an improper manner. The judge is suspected by the Alexander family of collusion sourced from within the IKG (Vienna Jewish Community).
The apparent lack of concern by the IKG for the interests of Mrs Alexander is also a peculiarity of this affair being a violation of Halachah (Jewish law). The Manchester Beth Din (religious court) issued a statement in February 2014 that referred to the ‘abandonment’ of Mrs Alexander by the Vienna Community. The Beth Din also criticised the ‘obvious miscarriage of justice’ by the Vienna courts. The Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews stated that, ‘there is a strong feeling that justice has not prevailed in Austria. The custody and access arrangements for the two boys and Beth and her ex-husband are self evidently inadequate’. The matter was debated in the British Parliament in January 2014 when MPs speaking under privilege condemned “the corruption and conspiracy in Austria”.
There is speculation that the behaviour of the Austrian authorities may affect United Kingdom – Austria diplomatic relations. Insiders say there has been a high level British request for information about the case from Austrian authorities.
As the legal case stalls, the boys are coming ever closer to school age. Beth Alexander feels they have suffered neglect and that their basic language skills are suffering – and argues that in the interests of the children and common justice, Dr Schlesinger should be made accountable to the court.
It is a matter of record that Mrs Alexander has had the determination to fight for custody of her children in a foreign country, against overwhelming odds, for four years with little or no support from anywhere in Vienna. Apart from anything else, this indicates that she is resourceful and well able to take custody of her sons.
That determination shows no signs of wavering.