A team of New York prosecutors, counselors and religious leaders will work to combat sexual abuse in Brooklyn’s ultra- Orthodox Jewish community.
The centerpiece of the outreach program, which was announced by District Attorney Charles Hynes and leaders from community-based organizations that serve Jewish communities, is a hot line abuse victims can call and speak to a culturally sensitive social worker.
The establishment of the team, which will focus on child sex abuse, comes partly in response to a discussion on State Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s radio show in the summer of 2008.
The show prompted dozens of listeners to come forward with stories of children being molested. Hikind has said that as many as four people a day over a three-month period last year approached him with accounts of secrets often kept for decades.
The program, called Kol Tzedek, which means voice of justice in Hebrew, will allow callers to remain anonymous until they feel they’re ready to identify themselves and meet with a social worker and prosecutors who specialize in sex crimes.
"Some people will go to jail," Hynes said of suspected abusers. "Some people will get therapy. Some people will get a combination of jail and therapy."
"I think we’re going to see real changes," the prosecutor added.
Speaking in general terms, Hynes said such victims are often abused by people they know from their communities including people with authority such as coaches and teachers.
Currently, the DA’s office is prosecuting 19 suspected felony cases of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the district attorney’s sex crimes bureau. It’s also prosecuting six misdemeanor cases, she said.
All the cases’ alleged victims are children or were children when the alleged abuse occurred, Jaus said.
"Over the years we’ve had a few indictments of sex abuse suspects from the Orthodox Jewish community," Jaus said. "The current 19 cases are an indication of how there’s been a change in the community," she said.
Prosecutors have blamed stigma, shame and cultural isolation for victims’ reluctance to come forward with their claims.
The team will visit yeshivas and synagogues, where rabbis and other leaders will be asked to encourage victims to report abuse.
Studies have found Orthodox Jews 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.
However, some sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jewish schools have spilled into the secular legal system in Brooklyn.
In one case, a rabbi was charged with sexually abusing boys at an Orthodox school. He admitted no sexual wrongdoing but pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a misdemeanor child endangerment charge, sentenced to three years of probation and dismissed from the school.
Last month, a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted an ultra-Orthodox rabbi of molesting his now-adult daughter through much of her childhood. He claimed he was being falsely accused by a daughter who rebelled against a strict upbringing.
Perhaps the best known sexual abuse case involving the N.Y. ultra-Orthodox community was exposed last year when the U.S. Justice Department asked Israel to facilitate the extradition of Avrohom Mondrowitz, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man suspected of raping and sexually abusing dozens of boys.
Mondrowitz was investigated by the New York Police Department in the 1980s and was indicted for sex crimes against four boys in Brooklyn, N.Y., but fled to Israel before he could be arrested.
According to witness reports, 60-year-old Mondrowitz, a married father of seven, would pose as a psychologist specializing in the treatment of children that suffered sexual abuse.
One of Mondrowitz’s victims, 40-year-old Chicago resident Mark Weiss, who, as a child, was sent by his parents to New York for therapy with Mondrowitz after he had dropped out of several educational frameworks, recounted his ordeal.
"[Mondrowitz’s] family was at a cottage in the Catskills and I was sleeping at his house. at night he suddenly touched me. I was naive. I thought he was being nice, that he was trying to make me feel better," said Weiss. "It was all a big fraud," he concluded.
Regarding the way the affair was handled by rabbis within the community, Weiss said: "[The rabbis] paralyzed an entire generation. When one of them destroys another person, they do nothing."
A similar sentiment was sounded by a social worker within the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, one of the few who treats ultra-Orthodox children and teens who are victims of sexual abuse, saying that "Most cases of abuse in our community are not referred for treatment at all."
"I don’t know if there are more pedophiles among the ultra-Orthodox community than there are in any other community, but it’s clear that assailants can cause more harm, because they can assault uninterrupted for years," she said. "This is because their victims don’t report them. Usually if someone like this is caught, a teacher or a student, he is kicked out. They don’t check further. Everyone worries about his children, and then almost certainly the abuser begins his assaults somewhere else."