By Paul Vitello (NY Times)
October 13, 2009
For decades, prosecutors in Brooklyn routinely pursued child molesters from every major ethnic and religious segment of the borough's diverse population. Except one.
Of some 700 child sexual abuse cases brought in an average year, few involved members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — about 180,000 followers of Hasidic and other sects who make up the largest such cluster outside Israel. Some years, there were one or two arrests, or none.
But in the past year, there have been 26. District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has brought charges against a variety of men — yeshiva teachers, rabbis, camp counselors, merchants and relatives of children. Eight have been convicted; 18 await trial.
If the sudden spike in prosecutions is startling, even more surprising is the apparent reason: ultra-Orthodox Jews, long forbidden to inform on one another without permission from the rabbis who lead them, are going to the police and prosecutors on their own.
Members of this close-knit community, who refer to themselves as the "haredim," meaning those who fear God, reject modern secular culture and keep strict control over what they consider internal affairs. For centuries, disputes involving children, marriage and business have been decided by rabbinical courts called beth dins, which do not report their findings to the secular authorities, even when they judge someone guilty. Taboos codified long ago during times of persecution discourage community members from informing on other Jews; violations can result in ostracism.
Now, a growing number of haredi Jews in Brooklyn say they do not think they can get justice from the rabbinical courts, which in several high-profile cases have exonerated people who were later criminally convicted of child abuse. And although some advocates for victims contend that the district attorney has been too accommodating of the rabbinical hierarchy — a charge that Mr. Hynes denies — more families are turning to his office for help.
Prosecutors say that since last year 40 minors have agreed to testify about abuse in court, if necessary. And Mr. Hynes's office has been asked for advice by prosecutors with jurisdictions that include other large haredi enclaves in the Northeast.
"What we have witnessed in the past year is completely unprecedented," said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the Brooklyn district attorney's sex crimes bureau. "This would be inconceivable just a few years ago."
Children in haredi families are no more or less likely to suffer sexual abuse than others, according to several recent studies. But Ben Hirsch, founder of Survivors for Justice, a New York group whose members include haredi Jews molested as children in communities nationwide, said the clandestine handling of molestation cases had kept leaders from dealing with the problem and made it easier for predators.
Mr. Hirsch credits the Jewish press, therapists and rabbis in the haredi population itself, and organizations like his, with bringing the issue to light. Jewish blogs like FailedMessiah.com and theunorthodoxjew.blogspot.com, he said, have also been "a major catalyst," giving abuse victims their first opportunity to vent and connect without fear of being identified.
"People are rising up," he said.
The father of a Brooklyn 10-year-old said in an interview that the mishandling, as he viewed it, of sexual abuse cases by rabbinical courts had persuaded him to contact the police immediately when his son told him last year that a neighbor had abused him.
"I'm not one who believes rabbis are capable to handle this," the father said.
The rabbis themselves voice a wide spectrum of reactions. Many say change is needed. Many more defend their internal courts. But almost all concur with what one Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, recently called a dawning revelation about child molestation, which was once dismissed by the hierarchy as inconceivable among a people who embrace an all-consuming religious devotion:
"Now," he said, "it is seen as possible."
In April, after bringing most of the recent criminal cases, Mr. Hynes began an initiative called Project Kol Tzedek, or Voice of Justice, which has enlisted Orthodox social workers to encourage more victims to step forward, and has dispatched trained staff members to schools and community centers to talk about abuse.
Hailed by many as an innovative approach, the program has been criticized by some victims' advocates for its links to a haredi social service agency, Ohel Children's Home and Family Services, to which beth dins have referred men accused of sexual abuse. Critics say that the treatment provided by Ohel has been inadequate and poorly supervised, a charge that the agency has vigorously denied.
Mr. Hynes walks a fine line. He has cultivated ties with Orthodox leaders since he was first elected in 1989. In an interview, he said he did so partly because they represent a major constituency, and partly to address jurisdictional tensions between his authority and theirs. In an editorial last year, The Jewish Week said those relationships had hampered abuse prosecutions, describing the district attorney's approach until recently as "ranging from passive to weak-willed."
Yet no prosecutor in the country has as many sexual abuse investigations and pending cases against haredi suspects. "We were able to break through because we have worked to establish credibility in the community," Mr. Hynes said. Some haredi leaders said they had no quarrel with Mr. Hynes's project. Yet one rabbi mentioned frequently on blogs cites ancient doctrine that justifies killing someone who informs on a fellow Jew.
David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, a group representing many haredi factions, offered the moderate view. "A broad consensus has emerged in the last few years," he said, "that many of these issues are beyond the ability of the community to handle internally."
But he added that prosecutors should recognize "religious sensitivities" by seeking alternatives to prison, to avoid depriving a family of its breadwinner, or by finding appropriate Orthodox homes for children removed from abusive families.
"The district attorney should be careful not to be seen as making a power grab from rabbinic authority," Mr. Zwiebel said.
Rabbi Meir Fund, who leads a synagogue known as the Flatbush Minyan, said that child molesters should be prosecuted, but that victims should consult with a rabbi before going to the police. Connections among the haredim are too entangled to discount the damaging ripple effects of accusations on the accused person's family, Rabbi Fund said.
Advocates for victims say similar views have informed some of the Brooklyn rabbinical leadership's worst judgments, allowing prominent rabbis who were repeatedly accused of abuse to keep their jobs and reputations.
In 2000, Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a charismatic youth leader and yeshiva principal who was the focus of students' abuse claims for more than 20 years — and was exonerated by a beth din — became the subject of an exposé in The Jewish Week, which found more than 60 accusers. The article led to a criminal investigation and a seven-year prison term for Rabbi Lanner.
Another rabbi, Yehuda Kolko, a grade school teacher at a Flatbush yeshiva, was accused of sexually abusive behavior by parents and former students numerous times over 30 years. The complaints were dismissed by rabbinical authorities, however, until New York magazine wrote about them in 2006.
Shortly afterward, the district attorney's office filed sexual abuse charges against Rabbi Kolko. But Mr. Hynes's decision last year to recommend probation in exchange for the rabbi's guilty plea to lesser charges of child endangerment incensed many haredim.
Partly because of that disappointment, some Orthodox leaders began taking steps they admit they would not have earlier.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents a predominantly Orthodox section of Brooklyn, began devoting his Saturday night radio shows on WMCA (570) to what he called "the epidemic" of unreported sex abuse. For six months, starting in July 2008, he invited victims to call him. Hundreds did, he said, adding that 10 of the criminal cases originated with those calls.
That same summer, Asher Lipner, an Orthodox therapist and vice president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, persuaded a Brooklyn yeshiva to open its doors for what he said was the first forum of its kind for haredi Jews in the borough — where not just rabbis, but also victims, therapists and laymen examined the problem of abuse.
"The good news is that 100 people showed up," Mr. Lipner said. "The bad news is that we had to keep the meeting secret. We could not advertise it, and we had to agree that no one would discuss the fact that the meeting ever took place."
As sensibilities evolve, one father seems to have found a middle ground between traditional and secular systems of justice.
When his 6-year-old son told him one day that Rabbi Kolko had sexually abused him, the father said he resolved to go to the police because he knew that the Brooklyn hierarchy had protected the rabbi in the past.
But first he made a detour. "I booked a flight to Jerusalem," he said. "I made an appointment to speak with a very prominent rabbi" who had written sympathetically about abuse victims.
"He told me it would be O.K. to report this teacher to the police," the father said. "He told me that if I reported him I would not be committing a sin."