Sunday, November 23, 2008

NY Lawmaker Becomes Confidant on Child Sex Abuse

Associated Press - November 23, 2008 

NEW YORK (AP) -- 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 molestation, days after Hikind appointed him to lead it in September; the panel is going on with other members. Another Brooklyn rabbi told the Daily News this month that vicious fliers and death-threat phone calls scared him into shutting down a sex abuse victims' hot line he had set up. 

"For me to release any information from people who have come forward to me with absolute confidence ... could you imagine?'' said Hikind, a Democrat first elected in 1982. "It would destroy the entire project and would accomplish nothing.'' 

He said lawyers were assessing how to respond to the subpoena. 

Plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Dowd said he was willing to safeguard victims' identities but determined to pursue whatever information Hikind has. 

"I don't question his motivation, but at the same time, I don't accept it as a reason'' not to provide information that could expose child molesters, said Dowd, who won $11.4 million in damages last year for two people raped as teenagers by a Roman Catholic youth minister on Long Island. 

Hikind said he would ultimately consider unmasking accused sexual predators but wants to focus now on setting up a broader framework for addressing the issue. 

His endeavors have generated a torrent of debate in Orthodox circles. A recent post on the subject on the news site generated more than 140 reader comments within 24 hours, some lauding Hikind and some blasting him. 

Some victims' advocates see little point in collecting information without bringing in law enforcement. 

"The only way things are going to be cleaned up'' is with authorities' involvement, said Vicki 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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