Lawmaker becomes confidant on child sex abuse

November 23, 2008 7:31:38 AM PST
It started as a discussion about a taboo subject: child molestation among Orthodox Jews. A Brooklyn assemblyman said that after he broached the subject on his radio show this summer, dozens of people came forward with stories about children being molested in the Orthodox community. As many as four people a day have come to him over the past three months with painful accounts of secrets often kept for decades, accusing more than 60 perpetrators, he said.

But the politician, Dov Hikind, said he won't breach victims' trust by disclosing the private exchanges to prosecutors - or to a lawyer who subpoenaed him in a civil case against a school accused of concealing abuse.

Hikind's campaign has fueled a firestorm in the insular world of Orthodox Judaism, where mounting calls to address sex abuse are met with reluctance to turn to secular authorities. One local rabbi said he got death threats for speaking out.

"In our community, people don't talk about the things that they've come to my office" and revealed, said Hikind, the Orthodox son of Holocaust survivors.

The outpouring has spurred him to work on devising mechanisms within the Orthodox world for reporting sex abuse and sharing information on school staffers' previous postings. He aims to present a plan to rabbis this winter.

Orthodox Jews strictly follow Jewish law. Studies have found they account for as much as 10 percent of Jews nationwide, and a far greater share in parts of the New York metro area. Some 37 percent of the more than 516,000 Jews in Brooklyn are Orthodox, according to the UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish social-service group.

Critics have said sex abuse claims are sometimes handled quietly in Orthodox rabbinical courts, rather than being reported to authorities, though Orthodox leaders are hardly alone in trying to keep such allegations private.

For decades, Roman Catholic leaders often transferred predatory clergy among parishes without telling parents or police. In a 2007 nationwide investigation of sex abuse by teachers, The Associated Press discovered efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse.

Some sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jewish schools have spilled into the secular legal system in Brooklyn.

In one of the most notorious, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko was charged with sexually abusing boys at an Orthodox school. He admitted no sexual wrongdoing and pleaded guilty in April to a misdemeanor child endangerment charge. Kolko was sentenced to three years of probation and has been dismissed from the school, said his lawyer, Jeffrey Schwartz. The school's lawyer didn't immediately return a telephone call.

Six former students are suing the school, saying it covered up Kolko's misdeeds. Their lawyer subpoenaed Hikind this month, seeking to find out whether he learned anything relevant to the case during his impromptu fact-finding about sexual abuse among the Orthodox.

Brooklyn prosecutors say they are open to hearing the claims, and Hikind said he encourages those who confide in him to talk to the authorities. But none will, he said, for fear of ostracism from a community worried about being stigmatized.

A rabbi and psychologist told Jewish media outlets he was hounded into quitting a task force on child molestati¤icki Polin, the founder of The Awareness Center. The Baltimore-based nonprofit group works with victims of sexual abuse in Jewish communities.

But many observers praise Hikind's campaign.

"We can't achieve solutions without the public spotlight," said Elliot Pasik, an Orthodox attorney who represents plaintiffs in rabbi sex-abuse lawsuits unrelated to Kolko.

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