This is a story about religion, sex abuse, power, extortion, bungled prosecutions and the pitfalls of pursuing justice in an insular Orthodox community where disputes are solved internally and mistrust of outsiders reigns.
It involves a convicted sex offender; a Hasidic multimillionaire oil and diamond dealer; a drug addict; a New York assemblyman; a supporting cast of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, private investigators, victims’ advocates, bloggers and lawyers — including Alan Dershowitz — and a cache of secretly taped conversations.
The story plays out against the backdrop of a bitter 2013 election battle for the post of Brooklyn district attorney in which claims of corruption, connivance and race-baiting abounded.
But it began for me in 2010, in a courtroom in Brooklyn, where Baruch Lebovits, a Boro Park cantor recently convicted on eight counts of child sexual abuse, appeared for sentencing.
On one side of the courtroom sat a phalanx of Lebovits’s black-clad supporters in neat rows. As one of Lebovits’s daughters entered the courtroom, she turned to the mass of advocates occupying the benches opposite and, fixing her red, raw eyes on them, insisted, “My father is innocent.”
The advocates, many themselves victims of other ultra-Orthodox child molesters, were in court that day to show support for the victim and to see if justice would finally be served.
Prosecuting child sex crimes is hard enough in a secular society, but in the ultra-Orthodox world, with its prohibitions against gossip, lashon hara, and ratting out a Jew to the secular authorities, mesirah, it is tortuously difficult.
Parents of ultra-Orthodox victims must get permission from a rabbi before they can report their child’s abuse to the police. Even with permission, they. and their families are often barred from synagogues and schools. They are publicly shamed and denounced, their businesses destroyed, their marriage prospects shattered.