Lakewood, in Ocean County, N.J., is home to some 40,000 Orthodox Jews. Court testimony offers rare public glimpse into religious tribunals’ handling of child sex abuse allegations; no reporting to police.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Hella Winston - Special To The Jewish Week
Last spring in a New Jersey courtroom, a prosecutor and defense attorney battled it out in a series of seemingly routine pre-trial hearings. At issue was a narrow point of law: whether or not a social worker who had evaluated an alleged child molester would be allowed to testify at his trial.
Amid the legal wrangling, however, facts emerged that were anything but ordinary — ones perhaps amplified by the recent revelations about alleged sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities.
The social worker’s evaluation had not been conducted on behalf of the courts or police. Instead, it was commissioned by a Lakewood, N.J., beit din, a Jewish religious tribunal operating as a kind of shadow justice system, adjudicating sexual abuse cases without the involvement of law enforcement.
Witnesses spoke of a world in which abuse allegations are typically “investigated” not by the secular authorities, but by rabbis lacking supervision by the criminal justice system. It is a world where victims and perpetrators alike are subjected to threats of social ostracism and, in some cases, physical harm for non-compliance with the “system.”
To anyone following the unfolding story of child sexual abuse in the haredi world, that these communities have a history of handling abuse allegations internally is hardly news. The longstanding and harshly enforced communal taboo against “informing” on another Jew to the secular authorities plays a key role in blocking victims from reporting abuse allegations to police and pressing charges.
In the past few years, aided by the Internet and blogs, a number of advocacy organizations founded by members, or former members, of these communities has emerged. Much of their work, centered mostly in Brooklyn, has focused on combating this taboo and providing support to abuse victims.
In addition, advocates have worked to shine a spotlight on many of the major social and political institutions in those communities, including yeshivas, social service agencies and even Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. (Hynes’ office launched a hotline to report haredi abuse cases in 2009, seemingly in response to criticism that his office has a history of “going easy” on haredi child molesters.)
The climate is different in Lakewood, acknowledged as the seat of non-chasidic haredi Judaism in the United States. Home to one of the largest and most prominent yeshivas in the world, Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), and a community of close to 40,000 Orthodox Jews, Lakewood has not been spared the problem of child sexual abuse — an ill that plagues all communities, religious and secular alike.
However, there are no public advocacy groups in Lakewood helping victims and agitating for change. Further, unlike Brooklyn, which is home to myriad haredi groups with no centralized “governing” body, the Lakewood community, dominated by BMG — which boasts over 6,000 students and an annual operating budget approaching $25 million — is something of a company town, residents and observers say. Indeed, the brothers who run BMG, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Aaron Kotler, exert considerable control over daily life within the community, with the bylaws of the Lakewood Jewish Community Council stating that the “community is centered around [BMG] … and [the council] functions at the pleasure of [the yeshiva heads] as represented by R. Malkiel Kotler.”
This control — bolstered by the geographically bounded and insular nature of the community — means that it can be even harder for Lakewood residents to overcome the communal taboo and report abuse to the authorities than it is for their counterparts in Brooklyn.
“Most victims of abuse and parents in Lakewood are afraid to speak up because [they fear being threatened by rabbis],” Debbie Rudin, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who now lives in Lakewood, told The Jewish Week.
“There are many Jewish communities that are controlled by the rabbonim [rabbis] of their towns that set certain standards, whether in regards to businesses, giving kosher supervision or allowing schools to open,” said Harold (Hershel) Hershkowitz, a Lakewood businessman who ran (and lost) for the Lakewood Township Committee on an anti-cronyism platform against the BMG-backed candidate. “But all of these are controlled in an open manner well understood by all that live there,” he said. “Lakewood, on the other hand, has a cabal that controls most Jewish publications, websites and of course the political arena, in order to exert full influence whenever it is necessary in order to keep their position of influence.”
Rubin and Hershkowitz are two of numerous Lakewood residents, therapists, educators, social workers and community activists, as well as seven abuse victims interviewed by The Jewish Week in the course of a months-long investigation into the abuse situation there and how it is being handled. An interest in maintaining communal control, they say, is a major factor in the rabbinic and lay leadership’s desire to deal with abuse in ways that do not involve law enforcement.
Indeed, the court testimony described above affords a rare public glimpse into what New Jersey Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson characterized as Lakewood’s “parallel justice system.”
The testimony itself comes from the only sexual abuse case in memory from the Lakewood haredi community to be prosecuted — something that came about because a family flouted, at great personal cost, communal norms and pressed charges against an alleged child molester, Yosef Kolko, in 2009.
The testimony raises many questions, especially in light of the Penn State and Syracuse situations, which have advocates across the country calling for tougher mandatory reporting laws. Prominent among them is whether the rabbis and others in the Lakewood community who participate in this parallel justice system are violating New Jersey’s mandated reporting law — not to mention alleged victims’ civil rights — and, if so, what is being done about it. The law requires “all persons” (including clergy) who have “reasonable cause to believe” that a child has been abused to make a report “immediately” to the Division of Youth and Family Services. (A knowing violation of this law could result in a fine and/or jail time.)
According to Marci Hamilton, Paul R. Verkuil chair in public law at Cardozo and a leading church-state scholar, “The prosecutors in [situations] like this are doing the religious community no favors. Without enforcing the mandatory reporting laws, the poisonous abuse stays within the community, the perpetrator gets more opportunities to abuse and the victims continue to suffer.”
According to court papers and interviews with people close to the family of the boy allegedly abused by Kolko, a 34-year-old former teacher at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood who also worked as a camp counselor, the family decided to go to the authorities only after they had exhausted the options within the community and found no relief. Before doing so, they sought assistance from a community activist, Doniel Bernstein, and several prominent Lakewood rabbis, including Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the “mashgiach,” or spiritual adviser, at BMG, and the “go-to” rabbi for all manner of communal issues in Lakewood, sources say.
Rabbi Salomon, along with Rabbi Shmuel Blech, served for a time on a formal beit din, created by Salomon several years ago specifically to hear sexual abuse allegations.
After hearing the allegations about Kolko, Bernstein, on behalf of the rabbis, commissioned a paid psychological evaluation of Kolko by a social worker, Gavriel Fagin. Fagin, who at one time worked in the sex offender treatment program at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services in Brooklyn, now maintains a private practice in which he specializes, among other areas, “in the evaluation and treatment of sexual deviance.”
Fagin testified in New Jersey Superior Court that he was contacted by “The [Beis] Din … in charge of following up on allegations of inappropriate sexual contact between individuals in the community” and asked to “evaluate an individual for their purposes to be able to determine how to proceed further.” Fagin stated in court that he saw Kolko five times to administer computer-based tests and that he did not “have much knowledge of the situation” that brought Kolko to the beit din in the first place. Fagin did not interview the alleged victim.
The mere act of commissioning an evaluation — which was apparently damning enough for the prosecution to argue (successfully) for Fagin’s ability to testify at trial — would seem to indicate at least a reasonable cause to suspect abuse. Even so, none of those made privy to these allegations reported them to the authorities.
After Kolko was arrested, the victim’s family was threatened and the alleged victim was denied admission to schools.
After the arrest, a widely distributed proclamation signed by nine Lakewood rabbis, including Chaim Ginsberg and Shmuel Katz, both employed by BMG, warned that “no one … may … bring any accusations to the secular authorities” and that “it is prohibited [for anyone] to assist and participate with the secular authorities in their efforts to persecute a Jewish person.”
Rabbis outside Lakewood sought to apply pressure as well. Yisroel Belsky, a prominent Brooklyn-based rabbi and yeshiva head who has also served in a senior position with the Orthodox Union for over 20 years, sent a letter to Lakewood residents. In it, he wrote of the “horrific news that one of your fellow residents in town informed upon a fellow Jew to the secular authorities.” He added that “all who have the ability to influence the informers to retract their terrible deeds should do so.”
Shortly after the Rabbi Belsky letter was sent, a 31-year-old Lakewood resident named Shaul Luban allegedly sent out text messages urging residents of Lakewood to try to pressure the victim’s father into not testifying.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office has charged Luban with witness tampering. The nine Lakewood rabbis and Rabbi Belsky have not been charged with any crime.
The victim’s family has since left Lakewood, but has not backed down and the prosecution is moving forward.
In addition to information directly relevant to the Kolko case, testimony from the hearings indicates that there have been other abuse allegations apparently deemed credible by rabbis, but that nonetheless went unreported to the police.
In testimony in New Jersey Superior Court given in May of this year, Lakewood rabbi and activist Micky Rottenberg alludes to such a case, which The Jewish Week has learned involved allegations against the husband of a woman who ran a local children’s playgroup. The beit din found the allegations to be credible and publicized them, effectively shutting down the playgroup. However, the authorities were never notified and the accused remains in the community today.
In his testimony, Rabbi Rottenberg also sheds light on the beit din’s inner workings.
According to him, “[The Secretary] of the beis din [would contact] the victims … [and the] alleged perpetrator, discuss with them … beg them to do certain things. And if they don’t do it, [the secretary would say] ‘I’m going to report [to the beit din] that you don’t listen to us, and then we are going to … Take away your job. Send away your kids from schools.’ Whatever measures they would feel they have power to be able for the person to submit and accept the verdict of the beis din.”
Rabbi Rottenberg also testified that he felt the beit din favored the accusers and was in fact involved in disbanding it at the behest of Rabbi Malkiel Kotler for this reason. Rabbi Kotler, through his brother, denied making any such request.
In arguments at a court hearing, Kolko’s attorney, Michael Wilbert, refers to a Rabbi Shmuel Vogel who, he claims, was “charged with a violation” by Bernstein and “required to go to a social worker in New York ... Mr. Sternstein.” Sternstein is Hillel Sternstein, coordinator of trauma services at OHEL, and a social worker with a private practice in Long Island.
Even those who do not attempt to report to police, but seek to publicize allegations within the Lakewood community, are often intimidated. A 2009 article in the Asbury Park Press described how the home of Rivka Finkelstein, the mother of a sexual abuse survivor who died of a drug overdose, was burned down after a letter written by her son excoriating the Orthodox community for its failure to deal with the problem of sexual abuse was made public online after his death. (According to the story, which cited several other examples of such intimidation, police believed arson was the likely cause of the fire.)
Of the 32 people on the New Jersey Sex Offender Registry living in Lakewood, there appears to be only one member of the Orthodox community, convicted of endangering the welfare of a child. According to a therapist in Lakewood with knowledge of the situation, “he was arrested in another township [for exposing himself to non-Jewish children], which is why [he was prosecuted and] made it onto the list.”
Calls Doniel Bernstein were not returned. Attempts to reach Rabbi Blech and Rabbi Salomon were unsuccessful.
A source close to Rabbi Salomon’s beit din who consulted with its members on behalf of this reporter told The Jewish Week that they would not speak to the paper out of concern that “the ‘forces’ that led to the disbanding [of the beit din] are still ever present. They expressed fear that speaking about these forces will lead to personal reprisal.” The source acknowledged Rottenberg as one of these so-called “forces.” A call to Rottenberg was not returned.
An e-mail to Rabbi Aaron Kotler seeking comment on Rabbi Salomon’s beit din resulted in a reply from Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, president of the Lakewood Community Service Corp.
While Rabbi Salomon is employed by BMG, Rabbi Weisberg said he was responding because “[these questions relate] to Orthodox community issues and not [BMG].” He told The Jewish Week that “The Lakewood community leadership has zero tolerance for any sexual abuse and is actively committed to following the law. Our community policy, which is in full compliance with applicable law and our [halachic] guidelines, is to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse to the proper law enforcement authorities.”
When asked whether the community has a process for determining what constitutes “reasonable suspicion,” Rabbi Weisberg replied, “I guess a common sense evaluation of the evidence determines reasonableness.” To the question of whether or not those who have a reasonable suspicion of abuse must first take their concerns to a rabbi, Rabbi Weisberg told The Jewish Week that “individuals are encouraged to follow the law.”
To be sure, the idea of using rabbis or a formal beit din to vet sexual abuse allegations has its defenders, among them Agudath Israel, which takes the position that all allegations of sexual abuse must first be reported to a rabbi. The president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Moshe Kletenick, has noted that religious courts can be used to investigate allegations, screening out false ones and referring those with “substance” to the secular authorities.....
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....And in related news today: Blago gets 14 years in the slammer - Sandusky re-arrested for child-abuse as two new victims come forward:
The Role of Institutions in Reporting Child Sex Abuse
Published: December 8, 2011 - The New York Times
As “Reporting Abuse” (editorial, Nov. 29) underscores, it is far too easy for powerful institutions to cover up incidents of child and adolescent sexual abuse at the hands of people in positions of trust. There is a marked contrast, however, between the respective states’ response to the Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University scandals.
The State of Pennsylvania has powerful tools to investigate aggressively and criminally charge those responsible for covering up abuses. New York does not. Since 2003, I have introduced legislation that makes it a felony for mandated reporters to systematically fail to report abuse.
It is also clear that the list of those mandated to report abuse needs to be significantly expanded. Sadly, recent incidents once again raise the question: How many abuse scandals will be tolerated before the New York State Legislature gets serious about the issue and passes meaningful legislation?
THOMAS K. DUANE
State Senator, 29th District
New York, Nov. 29, 2011
To the Editor:
Your editorial sends a critical message about institutions and their response to child sexual abuse: it must be treated as a crime and reported immediately to outside authorities, including the police. Delay is risky for the well-being of the child and allows the perpetrator continuing opportunities to victimize others.
If protecting children — and not reputations — is the highest priority, administrators and boards will have no doubt where their duty and interest lie.
Child rape is a hideous crime. Reporting the crime is the single most effective and proactive first step that institutions can take in the aftermath of child sexual abuse. The very best step institutions can take is to create a culture where abuse and crimes against children and youth cannot occur.
President and Chief Executive
Massachusetts Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Children
Boston, Nov. 29, 2011