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Abuse and Trust

A trial of sorts is looming for the famously insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York, as a Catholic lawyer and an Orthodox Jewish legislator prepare to face off in court over allegations of rabbinic child molesting.

The two combatants are on the same side when it comes to the basics. Both agree that sexual abuse of children by Orthodox rabbis and teachers is a serious problem, one that the Orthodox community resists facing.

Where they disagree is how to attack the problem. The lawyer, Michael Dowd, a veteran of Catholic priest abuse battles, favors pursuing legal action to bring accused molesters to justice. The legislator, Dov Hikind, a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly whose district includes the nation’s largest concentration of Orthodox Jews, hopes to prod the community into tackling the problem from within. The disagreement appears to be headed for court.

The dispute involves a former teacher at a prestigious Brooklyn yeshiva who was sued for molestation in 2006 by a former student. Several months after the suit was filed, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko was arrested on child molestation charges. The case sparked a furor in New York, with Orthodox leaders calling the affair a libel and others insisting that it was only the tip of the iceberg. Kolko eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and avoided jail time.

Discussing the affair on his weekly radio call-in show, Hikind challenged listeners to tell their own abuse stories, expecting a few dozen. Instead, he was flooded with reports, some 1,000 in all.

Dowd, still pressing a civil suit against Kolko, asked to search Hikind’s list for evidence. Hikind refused, saying he had promised his informants complete anonymity and could not betray their trust. On November 18, Dowd obtained a subpoena requiring Hikind to testify about his information. Hikind’s critics say the lawmaker is withholding evidence of crimes and assisting a cover-up. Hikind says he’ll go to jail if he has to, in order to protect his sources.

In the end, the courts will decide who can see the notes. If they’re smart, they’ll side with Hikind. No one before Hikind has succeeded in gathering victims’ testimony. Efforts to bring the accused to justice often fail before they start, because of victims’ unwillingness to speak.

It’s not just suspicion of the authorities that silences victims. Haredi parents are terrified that if news gets out — not just to authorities, but to anyone — their children will be tainted for life. Being known as a victim will drastically lower the chances of a good marriage, for victims and their siblings.

Getting victims to talk will require far more trust than the police or courts can hope to win. Hikind has that kind of trust, and he is making a breakthrough where countless others have failed. He should be allowed to continue developing his methods and pursuing the facts.

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