By Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
May 15, 2012
The already distraught mother had reached the end of her rope.
She and her husband, parents of a now 13-year-old boy who they allege was sexually molested by his Brooklyn yeshiva teacher, were doing the unthinkable in the borough's ultra-Orthodox community: bucking a system stacked heavily against them and pursuing a civil lawsuit against the Flatbush school that employed the teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko.
The system was pushing back, with a vengeance.
A prominent Brooklyn rabbi and Yaakov Applegrad, an administrator at Yeshiva Torah Temimah, the school parents were suing, asked the parents to a meeting — without their lawyer. After pleading with the couple to drop the suit, Applegrad and the rabbi turned up the heat and played the card they hoped would resonate powerfully with religious Jews: they compared the parents to Nazis for attempting to "bankrupt" the yeshiva. The Nazis, they said, destroyed the yeshiva in Europe built before the war by the father of Rabbi Lipa Margulies, Torah Temimah's founder and dean. Now, the two suggested, the parents were doing the same with their lawsuit. (It is not clear that Rabbi Margulies' father actually had a yeshiva in Europe).
The tactic worked. At a second meeting five days later, the husband, feeling "agitated ... outnumbered and overwhelmed with terrible emotions," and with his wife in tears, signed "under great duress" a document to end the lawsuit.
The couple quickly withdrew their agreement, and their lawsuit is going forward. But this episode — and others described by a second family suing the same yeshiva — highlights the particular perils facing haredi families who would attempt to hold yeshivas or other institutions civilly responsible for child molestation.
These revelations, recounted in a sworn affidavit submitted last year to the Brooklyn district attorney, come amid growing public pressure on the DA, Charles Hynes, to crack down on the intimidation of sex abuse victims by rabbis and other, often powerful, members of the community. A New York Times editorial Sunday chastised Hynes for helping to perpetuate a culture that protects abusers, not victims.
And the revelations come as calls mount from politicians, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Ed Koch, for Hynes to end his special treatment of Orthodox sex offenders and to prosecute rabbis who obstruct justice. Koch, in an opinion piece he wrote on Newsmax.com, went so far as to call on the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to handle these cases if Hynes fails to change his approach.
Hynes, who refuses to make public the names of indicted or convicted Orthodox molesters, has argued that releasing these names could potentially identify abuse victims because of what he has characterized as the "unique" nature of the "tight-knit" Orthodox community.
The DA did not file any charges regarding the pressure on the family — something the family's attorney at the time, Michael Dowd, acknowledged would have been unlikely, given that these actions, within the context of a civil suit, do not rise to the level of a crime. However, the DA was given this information, according to Dowd, "to just show the kind of atmosphere in the community that makes it so difficult for [haredi abuse victims and their families]" to seek justice and redress for their children.
Fordham law professor James A. Cohen, an expert in witness tampering, agrees with Dowd in this case, noting, however, that if there were any actual threats made to the family, the conduct would have been criminal. Nonetheless, Cohen added, "I think it's inexcusable that Jews behave like this."
In 2008, Rabbi Kolko, who was facing felony charges of touching two first graders in their genital areas, was allowed to plead to the reduced charges of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. Rabbi Kolko was sentenced to three years' probation. The two families who brought the criminal charges are suing Yeshiva Torah Temimah, where the abuse allegedly occurred.
To date, these have been the only viable civil suits brought by members of the haredi community in connection with child sexual abuse allegations. Ultimately, the father in the above case rejected the yeshiva's settlement offer — the terms of which are not disclosed in the affidavit — because he "believed [the school] had knowingly allowed a dangerous pedophile to teach little children for decades and ... had caused irreparable harm to my son." He thus wanted to "take this case to trial and let the court decide what was right."
The Jewish Week's calls to Torah Temimah's Applegrad and the other rabbi involved were not returned.
Allegations of abuse have dogged Rabbi Kolko for decades, and a letter issued in 2006 by the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg and posted exclusively in March on the blog FailedMessiah.com, indicates that Rabbi Kolko was investigated for these allegations by rabbis in 1985 and found innocent. At least four other alleged victims of Rabbi Kolko have come forward since 2005, but their alleged abuse took place after both the criminal and civil statutes of limitations had passed.
The two intense meetings described above were not the only instances in which the families of these boys, and those connected to them, have been subjected to psychological pressure, intimidation and threats.
As the New York Post first reported in February, the DA was also made aware that members of the other family suing Torah Temimah had been plagued by threatening anonymous phones calls urging them to drop the suit.
In an affidavit provided to the DA, the father of this victim recounts receiving a phone call in which "an unidentified male voice said, 'You better back off or you'll suffer the consequences.'" When he checked the Caller ID on his phone and called the number, a "phone system answered the call automatically and identified the location as Yeshivah Torah Temimah."
The father also describes a "barrage of harassing and threatening phone calls" by unidentified callers "requesting that I drop this lawsuit" and threatening to "publicly humiliate and name" his son and shun him at his "neighborhood's synagogues."
The father also writes that the lawyer for Torah Temimah, Avi Moskowitz, asked his son's therapist to persuade him and his wife to "drop this case" so as not to bankrupt the yeshiva. The details of this are recounted in a separate affidavit signed by the therapist.
Moskowitz denied the allegation to The Post, and Hynes' spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, told the paper that "the allegations were fully investigated," and "it was decided there were no additional charges that could be brought." When asked this week by The Jewish Week for specifics about why that was so, Schmetterer declined to answer.
Indeed, Fordham's Cohen also questioned the DA's failure to bring charges in this case, in particular with respect to the phone calls. Such calls, Cohen told The Jewish Week, "would be at least [a harassment charge]. Threatening phone calls is criminal conduct."
The DA is in fact prosecuting Rabbi Kolko himself for a probation violation in connection with 2010 criminal contempt charges that stem from allegations that he violated an order of protection that was part of his plea agreement. The protection order restricts Rabbi Kolko from having any contact with the boys he was charged with molesting. Rabbi Kolko is accused of intimidating one of the boys by menacing him on the street. These charges carry a maximum sentence of one year in jail but are unrelated to the civil suit.
However, Cohen believes the DA is not doing enough, given the numerous stories of intimidation chronicled in the press and known to Orthodox anti-abuse advocates.
"We are dealing with a DA who courts the Orthodox community," Cohen said. "So what are we to conclude from this?"
"These children's civil rights are being violated," Cohen continued. "They have a civil right not to be molested. And the feds should take an interest in this and the feds do take an interest in things that would normally be left to the locals when the locals don't do it. And this local isn't doing it."
In the meantime, the new attorneys for the boys' families intend to do whatever they can to protect their clients.
David J. Dean, a partner at Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo, told The Jewish Week, "We are seeking justice for these young victims who have had their youthful innocence stolen. We intend to hold all those responsible for these despicable acts accountable in a court of law."
Dean continued, "We will not tolerate intimidation of our clients of any nature whatsoever."