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Sex abuse accusations divide N.Y. Orthodox community

Children's stories set off firestorm

By Jennifer Peltz
Associated Press / November 24, 2008
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NEW YORK - It started as a radio program discussion about a taboo subject: child molestation among members of the insular world of Orthodox Jews.

Since he broached the subject on his radio show this summer, says a state assemblyman, dozens of people have come forward with stories about children being molested in the Orthodox community, which strictly follows Jewish law.

Dov Hikind said as many as four people a day have come to him during the last three months with painful accounts of secrets often kept for decades, accusing more than 60 individuals.

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

His campaign has set off a firestorm in the Orthodox community, where people are reluctant to involve secular authorities. One rabbi said he received 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, himself an Orthodox Jew.

Among other faiths, the subject has meant turmoil in recent years for the Roman Catholic church. For decades, church leaders often transferred predatory clergy among parishes without telling parents or police. Victims have won millions in settlements from dioceses.

Hikind said he won't breach victims' trust by disclosing his private exchanges to prosecutors - or to a lawyer who subpoenaed him in a civil case against a school accused of concealing abuse.

However, he has been devising mechanisms within the Orthodox world for reporting sex abuse and sharing information on school staffers' previous positions. He aims to present a plan to rabbis this winter.

Studies have found Orthodox Jews account for 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 allegations 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, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko was charged with sexually abusing boys at an Orthodox school. He admitted no sexual wrongdoing, but 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 return a telephone call seeking comment.

Six former students are suing the school, saying it covered up Kolko's misdeeds.

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