June 18th, 2012
10:50 PM ET

Hasidic child sex abuse allegations

Areas of Brooklyn, New York feel like a trip back in time. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities live a lifestyle that mirrors their ancestors from centuries ago. The dress, hair, language, education, food, values, prayers, traditions and community structure have been passed down and preserved through many generations and across oceans. All of those are an expression of the residents’ profound faith in God.

What is not visible are shameful secrets: Child sex abuse scandals have been making headlines for years and bringing unwanted attention to a group bent on privacy.

For Hasidim, every waking act is defined by the laws of the Torah; they depend on the teachings of rabbis to guide them in all parts of their day. Influence from the secular world threatens to invade their insular community.

Now revered leaders of the community are accused of protecting child predators and punishing the victims who dare to speak out about what was done to them, all to avoid outside involvement.

CNN’s Gary Tuchman talked with Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg who is trying to change that attitude. He has created a hotline for victims and their families. As a result, he received death threats. He told Tuchman, “The rabbis feel very hurt that this is what's happening in the community so they want to push it under the cover, so that it shouldn't come out.”

Crimes against children by adults who claim to live the word of God are not new. Many religions have demons, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews are no exception. Most deny it could happen in their midst. Child rape and molestation don’t fit their pious image.

In Brooklyn, there are allegations of abuse in schools, homes and religious settings. Several boys say they were assaulted in a ritual bath called a mikvah. For all branches of Judaism, the mikvah is the ultimate symbol of purity. Some Orthodox men go there before each Sabbath. Under the guise of observance, the accused find their victims where they are most vulnerable and trusting – a heinous strategy.

Still some victims and their families choose to bury the assaults or seek redress in a rabbinic court to avoid the alternative: Rabbis losing authority, bringing disgrace to the community, and suffering the backlash of friends and neighbors.

Pearl Engelman says her son was repeatedly molested by a school official as a young boy 20 years ago. After she found out about the abuse, she reported it to religious leaders but there was little sympathy for her family. “We stand for truth, for justice. And the cover-up is deeply painful to me,” she told Tuchman. The statute of limitations has now expired.

The Hasidim in Brooklyn are a powerful voting block. That’s why District Attorney Charles Hynes is accused by victims’ rights advocates of going easy on alleged Hasidic child molesters and rapists. He’s been elected six times, and is accused of appeasing the rabbis in order to get their support and keep his position.

Hynes strongly denies the allegations. In 2009, he established a program and a hotline to help victims called Kol Tzedek (“Voice of Justice” in Hebrew). But critics are outraged because he refuses to disclose the names of the men arrested through the initiative. The Jewish Daily Forward’s request for the records filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Law was denied.

Hynes claims that revealing the names of the suspects could lead to the community identifying the victims and intimidating them. That decision raises concerns about the rights of the public, the legality of shielding the men, and the DA’s motives.

Tuchman asked Hynes how he reconciles instituting a policy for the Hassidim, but no other groups, like the Roman Catholic Church. He says because “there’s never been any intimidation by priests.”

In a May 16 op-ed, Hynes wrote:

Since the inception of Kol Tzedek, we have made 95 arrests; 53 cases have been adjudicated, with a conviction rate of 72%.

I stand by these numbers.

The statistics show how absurd it is to suggest that we cover up, downplay or in any way “give a break” to sex offenders in the Orthodox Jewish community. Like any other defendants, they are often arrested in public by the police, and their court appearances are open and available to the public as part of the public record. I welcome scrutiny of these cases.

The suggestion that I have ever condoned the practice of first seeking a rabbi’s advice before an Orthodox Jewish community member reports sexual abuse is a distortion of my record. I have never suggested that someone seeking the advice of a rabbi is then relieved of the obligation of reporting sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.

While some may persist in protecting the community ahead of justice for the young victims, there are signs of progress. On June 10, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews held a meeting in Crown Heights to talk about combating child sex abuse. Hynes was on the panel. Some rabbinic leaders have said anyone with knowledge of abuse should go to the police and do not need to talk first with a rabbi. It will take the courage of the victims and the compassion of the community to make lasting change.

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Filed under: Crime & Punishment
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Georgia Loffredo

    Although I feel that, tragically, there is always child molestation going on, and don't feel any group is totally exempt, the numbers bothered me – does the reporter have actual claims on which to base this? He seemed a bit giddy while reporting, wondering if he has his own agenda. More important, I would like to see a story on a group that even has an actual association – NAMBLA. They promote sexual abuse of young boys. Let's dig deeper into this disgusting group, it has always made me sick.

    June 19, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  2. RS

    What happened to sex offender registries. Are those not used in New York City. You can't comply with that law and still protect identities. That is the point of a registry!!!

    June 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  3. joey

    I'm a chosid with 8 children; although abuse exists in our community the numbers given by Rosenberg are extremely exaggerated. Rosenberg is doing good work however he is still a Meshugener.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  4. Harold MacCaughey

    If the Hasidic community refuses to live by the rules of our society; rules such as contacting the authorities in cases of pedophilia, they should get out. They would be welcome in Israel, I am sure.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  5. Yafa Beyla Cappon

    As a survivor of sexual molestation as a young girl, I think it is imperative that any victim of any sexual crime has the right to swift and hard justice. Some of the worst crimes against children have been committed by so called "holy" men and women who hide behind the walls of their 'faith' and 'religion'. These criminals need to be brought to justice, and legislation and laws should be created to provide safe routes for Rabbis, clerics, social workers, teachers and family members to aid in the carriage of justice without fear of harm from the community at large. It's time to expose the underbelly of this monster to the light of day where the true Justice-from G-d, can be delivered. The vermin know where they hide, and it's just a matter of time when they will all be brought to bear.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  6. Bill Deacon

    As a Catholic, my heart and prayers go out to the Hasidic who seek to live their faith amidst the onslaught of evil against them. I pray that your faith be spared the recriminations that we have endured and the debasement of your religion due to the actions of criminals and evil persons amongst you.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. waheid

    Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics are not the only religious groups where authority figures are known to facilitate sexual activity. I suspect that other religions have the same problem that is being kept out of sight using various specious arguments to keep the activity secret. It would seem logical that the more hierarchical the religion the more the practice of sexual abuse by religious leaders and suppressing knowledge of such behavior by others in the religious community is likely to occur.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  8. ted

    You would think that such a crime would be unthikable to the "men of G-d". Such story is beyond dissapointing.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Support SNAP - support the victims not the perps

    New York is clearly dragging its feet about cracking down on child molestation and other types of child abuse.

    This is because Catholic priests and other molesters like these Jews "lobby" aggressively against tougher laws.
    If these groups were not allowed to lobby / bribe legislators things would be very different.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Georgia

      I want to see them going after all perpetrators – and especially after NAMBLA.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Kay

      You don't get to single out certain sectors of the population to ban from lobbying because a tiny percentage of this or that sector are pedophiles, so *you* decide that the entire sector must be lobbying to protect them.

      June 19, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  10. Frank

    It should be noted here that approximately 25% of those Hynes claims to have prosecuted under Kol Tzedek occurred before the program began. Hynes is flagrantly breaking the law by not releasing names of people who have been arrested and convicted. These are public records under any reading of any state's law, and certainly New York's.

    June 19, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  11. Skeptical

    I will not stick my head in the sand and state that no such abuse occurs. However, it is irresponsible to throw around a statistic that 1 in 5 children is abused without making some attempt to substantiate it. The Orthodox Jews have large families with many children – certainly at least 5 on average. I refuse to believe that on average every single family has a child that has been abused without some support for such an inflammtory statement. Real Orthodox Judaism, when practiced in keeping with its teachings, encourages normal, healthy family relationships which would remove the temptation for rampant abuse amongst its members like we've seen in other communities as of late.

    June 19, 2012 at 9:32 am |