Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld, a prominent figure in the upstate New York Hasidic community of New Square, was acquitted by a judge of molesting a boy for several years.
Taubenfeld, 55, was accused of abusing Laiby Stern, a neighbor, who claimed the older man began an abusive reign of terror when he went to him for solace after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001.
Rockland County Court Judge Rolff Thorsen announced the verdict, which he conceded might be greeted with dismay by the public, to a packed, pin-drop silent courtroom.
“I must not and will not be swayed by public opinion,” he declared.
Hasidic men from New Square who came to support Taubenfeld outnumbered the media and supporters of Laiby Stern. Shortly after the verdict, they erupted in spontaneous celebratory songs outside the courtroom, and said they plan to continue the celebrations in New Sqaure.
“Mazel tov, mazel tov,” one of the men greeted defense attorney Gerard Damiani, handing him the phone to speak with a prominent supporter.
Stern says he will keep his head high despite the verdict.
“I am happy I did what I had to do,” he told the Forward.
He said he still hopes the trial will spur other victims to come forward, even though he called the judge’s decision unfortunate.
“We don’t know God’s plan,” he said.
Damiani praised the judge for not caving to the pressure of the media and child abuse activists.
“I am happy with the verdict,” he said. “The judge is a good and fair judge and he did the right thing.”
The verdict brings an end to one of the most high-profile recent criminal cases in Rockland County, and marks the first time that a member of the Skver-dominated enclave of New Square to have been tried for sexual abuse.
Stern, now 22, told a packed courtroom on July 16 that Taubenfeld first molested him when the he sought reassurance after hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He testified that the abuse continued until his bar mitzvah, five years later.
According to victims’ advocates who stood outside the courtroom, sexual abuse is rampant in the isolated village.
But there was little evidence to corroborate Stern’s account, and the defense succeeded in poking some holes in his claims.
Rabbi Noson S. Leiter runs a victim’s advocacy group in Rockland County called “Help Rescue our Children.” He was visibly distraught over the ruling, laying the blame at a corrupt justice process, citing the fact that both the Rockland County District Attorney, Thomas Zugibe, and Judge Rolf Thorsen received an overwhelming majority of the New Square vote.
Judge Rolf Thorsen won 99% of the votes from all four Ramapo districts in New Square when he ran for the bench in 2014. His brother, Eric Thorsen, is a family court attorney with close ties to the Hasidic community in Rockland County.
“The children of New Square are the biggest victims of a criminal justice system that clearly doesn’t seem to work in a just manner,” Rabbi Leiter said.
But he is still hopeful, stressing the importance that a case of this nature actually ended up going to trial.
“The fact that it got this far is testament to the courage of Laiby,” Leiter said. “And despite the acquittal, this case should encourage victims—especially of more recent abuse— to come forward as soon as possible and hopefully attain a successful conviction.”
Taubenfeld faced charges of second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child, a felony.
Taubenfeld opted for a non-jury trial. His lawyer said he was afraid he might not get a fair hearing in the suburban community.