By Hella Winston
New York Jewish Week - September 10, 2008
"He was basically forced to resign," said Assemblyman Dov Hikind, above, of Dr. Benzion Twerski. "He was literally put against the wall, and he felt he had no choice...the point is, they got to him, they threatened him."
A prominent Orthodox rabbi and psychologist has been intimidated into quitting as head of a just-formed task force dealing with rabbinic sex abuse of minors, organized by Assemblyman Dov Hikind this week.
Dr. Benzion Twerski told The Jewish Week Wednesday that he was quitting the task force because “I was prosecuted in the street for daring to join such a venture.”
“To protect myself, my family, and reputation, I decided to withdraw from this project,” he wrote in an e-mail as the paper was going to press with a story announcing Hikind’s formation of the task force. “From this point, I am avoiding participation in any forms of public service. Public life is not for me.”
Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents Borough Park and Flatbush, deplored Twerski’s abrupt departure from his new panel.
“He was basically forced to resign,” said Hikind. “He was literally put against the wall, and he felt he had no choice. We’ll get somebody else who’s very respected. But that’s not the point. The point is they got to him, they threatened him.”
Twerski’s dramatic departure came just as Hikind was rolling out the new panel, planned as the next step in a personal crusade against child sex abuse in the Orthodox community that he has come to view as an epidemic.
Hikind said he had amassed a dossier with the cases of “hundreds” of individuals who say they have been sexually molested by rabbis and other Orthodox community members during their childhood. And he threatened to broadcast the names of their abusers if community leaders do not respond to his call for action against them.
“Let me tell you,” he said in an interview last week, “when there’s a person who we have confirmed through a variety of people has been doing terrible things” and those who know refuse to go to the authorities, “I am prepared to name names. I am prepared to be sued by those pedophiles. If they’re innocent, let them sue me.”
Speaking after a rash of highly publicized sexual molestation cases in the Orthodox community, Hikind said, “I have been learning that a lot of people out there know who the bad guys are. Where have I been? How come no one talked to me, how come no one came to me?”
Now, Hikind says, he is more determined than ever to establish a community task force to address the issue. Though vague on the panel’s broader makeup and specific plans, Hikind ultimately seeks to develop a list of sexual molesters in Orthodox schools to keep them away from children.
Neither man would specify the nature of the threats made against Twerski to force his departure. But Hikind called them “pathetic and sad.”
“My heart goes out to him,” he said. “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Things are opening up, people are coming forward, but we are still so far away.”
Hikind’s new crusade follows several cases in which individuals — often adults now — have gone public with accounts of sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of respected yeshiva teachers when they were children. The alleged victims have spoken, too, of the rejection or even intimidation they experienced from their yeshivas and rabbinic leaders when they tried to report what had happened to them.
In one of the few cases in which victims went to the secular court system, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko of Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Flatbush was convicted on two counts of child endangerment last April. Another alleged abuser, Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz, now awaits extradition from Israel to Brooklyn, where he has been charged with sexual abuse of children.
More recently Joel Engelman, a former student at the Satmar chasidic sect’s United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg, has alleged he was abused when he eight years old by Rabbi Avrohom Reichman. Engelman, now 23, has filed suit against Rabbi Reichman and UTA, which, he says, violated its promise to him to dismiss Rabbi Reichman in exchange for his not going public. UTA has yet to respond to the suit.
Hikind, who began broadcasting radio shows addressing the issue bluntly about a month ago said, “For a couple of weeks now, so many people have been coming forward. It’s made me absolutely sick, to have to listen to this, to be so shocked, to see so much pain, so much suffering. ... I actually feel that [this] may be the most important thing I’ve done in 26 years. Because you’re talking about saving lives.”
At times during his interview, Hikind sounded vague when pressed on just what his task force would do and how it proposed to go about doing it. The panel will present its findings to “leading rabbis” in various Orthodox communities, he said. And the rabbis, he predicted, “will be absolutely flabbergasted” by what they hear.
His ultimate goal, said Hikind, is to establish a communal registry that would list the names of teachers removed from schools due to abusive behavior.
“We need to develop a system, a roster, a protocol needs to be developed,” he said. “If you have a pedophile who is teaching in a yeshiva, that person needs to be on a list, and before any other yeshiva hires a person, you need to be able to go to a roster and see if that rebbe was teaching somewhere else and got thrown out.”
But at another point, apparently recognizing that many schools are often reluctant to dismiss such teachers in the first place, Hikind appeared to envision a more ambitious, quasi-judicial function for his panel.
“It’s sort of hard to investigate yourself,” Hikind admitted. “There’s got to be a system where trusted people, respected leaders, who are not directly a part of that particular organization examine everything. Look, I wasn’t there when these boys were abused, nor was anyone else. So we have to make judgments. We do that all the time.”
Some advocates for the abused children, while praising Hikind for highlighting an issue about which they claim Orthodox Jews are in denial, voiced reservations about his plan.
The father of one child allegedly abused by Rabbi Kolko, who spoke on condition of anonymity, derided the notion of the community policing itself, citing his own unsuccessful efforts to marshal rabbinic action in his son’s case.
“I commend Dov for what he is doing,” said the father of the 10-year-old boy, who was allegedly molested in first grade, “but all these rabbis will make a farce of it. It touches their business. All these schools are somehow connected together.”
Another long-time community activist, who spoke to The Jewish Week on condition of anonymity due to the controversial nature of the issue, said, “Dov’s actions of these past few months are moving to anyone who cares about this issue. Yet we are very concerned that he has set back the cause by offering community members an alternative to the secular authorities.
Reporting the abusers to the rabbis is “akin to asking the fox to watch the henhouse,” this source said. “We spent close to three decades reporting abusers to their yeshiva employers, local rabbis and ‘gedolim’ only to watch time and time again as the information we provided was used to protect the abusers and vilify the victims.
“There is a functioning system in place that we will never have the resources or expertise to replicate, “ he continued, referring to the secular authorities. “Indeed, to suggest that we are doing so is to do a grave injustice. If people believe we have an alternative to the police, which we do not and never will have, they will rely upon this belief and nothing will change. We tried this and came to the painful conclusion that it can not work.”
Hikind himself took a nuanced position on the issue of going to outside authorities.
“Look, I would like to see people report to the police,” he said. “But there are some realities in our communities. ... People in our community, as you know, don’t want to go public. They want to keep it quiet, which is terrible. It’s sinful. I use the word sinful because for someone not to come forward in a situation of abuse of their child is not only to be guilty for not pressing issues for their own child, but they are guilty for every other child that is abused after their child. And they have to live with that. I keep on repeating that to everyone.”
But given the reality, “At least let’s get these people off the street,” he said. “With regard to institutions, where we find teachers, one of the things we are going to work on, if we establish that a teacher is a pedophile, that name needs to go on a list. Before anyone hires anyone, they must look at that list.”
Others active on this issue believe that legislative reforms are also crucial. As an assemblyman, Hikind said he is supportive on this front. He voiced strong backing, for example, for an extension of the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sexual molestation, and for the alleged victims of such abuse to file civil suits.
Under current law, the state cannot pursue criminal prosecutions of an alleged molester once the alleged victim turns 23. A victim himself must bring a civil suit against his molester or against the school he alleges failed to protect him by between one and six years after his 18th birthday, depending on the nature of the allegation.
But child victims of sexual abuse often do not understand or come to terms with their experiences — or sometimes, even recall them — until years, or even decades after they take place. Members of the Orthodox community have the additional burden of overcoming their peer group’s hostility to turning to secular authorities on such a sensitive matter. By then, the statute of limitations often bars their entry to the courtroom.
There are currently several bills in the state Legislature to address this problem, though none have passed in the Senate yet. A bill to extend the statute of limitations and open a one-year window for victims to seek damages regardless of their age recently passed in the Assembly but has repeatedly stalled in the Senate.
“The statute of limitations needs to be extended,” said Hikind. “I’m totally for that . . . I will do everything in the world to make that happen because now I realize how critical that is.”
Elliot Pasik, an attorney in private practice and a co-founder of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, a newly organized grassroots group, has also been pressing for legislation that would require mandatory background checks and fingerprinting of teachers in non-public schools. In addition, his group is working for the passage of a law that would require teachers in non-public schools to report cases of abuse when they see evidence of it or it is reported to them. Public school officials are already required to do so.
New York — unlike 25 other states — does not now classify clergy as mandated reporters, which means that they are not required to report evidence of sex abuse or violence to state child welfare authorities.
Legislation requiring fingerprinting and background checks for prospective non-public school faculty was defeated in the Assembly last year but reintroduced this year by Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. The legislation does not, however, have the support of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side).
Agudath Israel, an umbrella group of ultra-traditional Orthodox organizations, is opposed to both the mandated reporting and finger printing, and background check legislation.
Pasik, who currently represents Engelman in his lawsuit against Rabbi Reichman and United Talmudical Academy, said, “New York State has the weakest laws in the country.
[Parochial schools] are near-totally unsupervised by the state, which is a throwback to pre-16th century English common law when the church could give sanctuary [to fugitives]. This has to change.”
Hikind would not commit yet on such specifics. “I am sitting with my legislative person right now. We are just going to start our conversation. It’s sort of a new look for me at everything,” he said.”
But he added: “Anything that contributes to apprehending the bad guy and helping the victims, we need to do — period, end of the story. That’s my position. I have a new perspective because I’ve taken a close look, because I’ve spent almost four weeks now listening non-stop to horror stories, and then I’m told by people today who met with me, ‘Dov, it’s worse than even you think right now.’ I said, ‘what?’”