by Hella Winston (Special To The Jewish Week)
May 6, 2009
A married Jew with peyos and a black hat, Stefan Colmer used to spend hours, according to reports, reading the Talmud in the main study hall of the Mirrer Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. While there, he also befriended some boys in and around the yeshiva and, on occasion, invited a few of them to his nearby home.
And, according to a source close to the case, Colmer allegedly sexually abused several of them — in addition to other young boys from the "general neighborhood" near the yeshiva, a law enforcement source believes.
Colmer, 32, who moved to Israel in early 2007, weeks before any of his alleged victims approached the police, was extradited to Brooklyn in January 2008 and is now being held at Rikers Island, awaiting trial on charges that he sodomized two teenage boys, both 13 at the time, on numerous occasions. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted on all charges.
What isn't in the criminal charges against Colmer is that, according to numerous sources familiar with the facts, several years before allegedly abusing the two victims named in the May 2007 indictment he was treated in the sex-offender program of a prominent Jewish agency — only to leave of his own volition before his treatment was completed.
Yet, until his arrest in June 2007, Colmer had never been reported by anyone to the police — not by his alleged victims, their parents or community members who knew of allegations against him — a fact confirmed by a law enforcement source who notes that, until 2007, Colmer had a "clean record."
Further, because Colmer was never reported to the police and thus came to the agency, Ohel Children's Home and Family Services, without a mandate from the court, when he dropped out of its offender program around 2002, according to friends, Ohel was not required to report him to the authorities for non-compliance. For the same reason, his activities were not monitored and his name did not appear on any public registries designed to alert the public to those who might pose a danger to children.
The Colmer case and the way it was apparently handled illuminates a controversial debate raging in the Orthodox community in the wake of the cases of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, Avrohom Mondrowitz and others: whether suspected cases of child sexual abuse should be dealt with "internally" — even if only initially — by rabbis or professionals within the Orthodox community, or whether they should be handed directly over to law enforcement for investigation.
No one interviewed for this story suggested that Ohel did anything illegal by apparently not reporting Colmer to the authorities after he dropped out of treatment. Indeed, laws about confidentiality that govern the doctor-patient relationship limit what a psychologist can divulge about his patient. Nonetheless, there are those who believe that in a case like Colmer's, reporting would not have constituted a breach of doctor-patient privilege.
Treating someone who has not been mandated by the courts is "a complex and dangerous situation," said Dr. Michael Salamon, a New York-based psychologist who has had experience in this area. "As I learned it, and teach it to others [you are permitted] to report if there is any reasonable cause to suspect that this person is a danger to himself or others. If I were a supervisor in a case [where someone who was not mandated for treatment dropped out] I would insist on calling the state hotline [of Child Protective Services] for guidance."
Given this, Colmer's case raises several thorny questions: Should Ohel have agreed to treat Colmer, knowing that he had never been reported to the police? Is there a will on the part of the community and its institutions to reform reporting policies and practices to plug what appears to be a gaping hole in the reporting system, one that leaves children unprotected from men like Colmer? And, most pressing of all, who, in the end, should bear responsibility for what happened to the two innocent 13-year-old alleged victims of Colmer, whose lives will likely never be the same?
According to Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School and the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children," the Colmer case highlights, among other things, the need for tougher reporting laws. "This can be prevented in the future by a clearer and more rigorous reporting statute. This is just another example of the culture protecting the adults at the expense of the children."
Stefan Colmer's journey to a prison cell in Rikers Island began in Brooklyn, in 2006, and took him from there to Passaic, N.J., and, ultimately, to a religious West Bank settlement in Israel, where he was arrested on the charges he faces today. The Jewish Week pieced together the facts of the Colmer case from interviews with and information obtained from more than a dozen people during the course of a months-long investigation. Most wanted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case. Law enforcement officials wanted it because of the pending criminal case and the desire to protect those who have cooperated with them. Friends of Colmer's wanted anonymity because, although they wanted to speak out, their rabbis forbade them speaking to The Jewish Week. Liaisons in the Jewish community between alleged victims and community leaders wanted it so as not to compromise their ongoing relationships.
According to a source with firsthand knowledge, Colmer's behavior first came to the attention of Rabbi Asher Berenbaum, the son of the then rosh yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva, in the spring of 2006, when two boys disclosed to him and a colleague what Colmer had allegedly done to them. Efforts to reach Rabbi Berenbaum were unsuccessful.
At the time, Rabbi Berenbaum approached Colmer, who admitted to him that he had a problem and had been treated previously at Ohel, according to a source who related a conversation he had with the rabbi to The Jewish Week. Colmer, the source said, told Rabbi Berenbaum that the treatment had not worked for him, citing the fact that he had molested while in treatment, and ultimately dropped out of the program.
Unsure about how to handle the situation, Rabbi Berenbaum reached out for advice. One of the people from whom he sought counsel, and who spoke with The Jewish Week under condition of anonymity, instructed him to call the police. But it seems Rabbi Berenbaum did not do so at the time and instead successfully exerted pressure on Colmer to keep his distance from the school.
In the summer of 2006, likely as a result of the growing awareness of his proclivities among those in his Brooklyn neighborhood — there were even blog postings that he had abused kids around the Mir — Colmer moved to Passaic, N.J., where residents learned of his history through informal communications between alleged victims of Colmer.
"Colmer was in town for six months before word reached us," said Michael Lesher, a lawyer and advocate for abused children who is also a member of Passaic's Orthodox community. "It was a grass-roots message. We heard absolutely nothing from any rabbis in Brooklyn, though by this time there should have been plenty to report." According to Lesher, rabbis in Passaic raised money and were prepared to buy Colmer's house in an effort to get him to move out of town — but Colmer left on his own, without taking the offer.
By February of 2007, Colmer was living in Israel under an assumed name where, sources close to him say, he tried to buy a house. Soon after his arrival, a local rabbi reportedly made inquiries and found out about the charges circulating through the community, and that Colmer had never been reported to the police.
Meanwhile, during this time, two alleged victims came forward to Brooklyn police and formal charges were filed against Colmer. Working with information from Lesher and other community activists and Brooklyn law enforcement, the Israeli authorities were able to locate and arrest Colmer provisionally in Israel, until an extradition request was finalized. Colmer was returned to the United States in January 2008 and is now awaiting trial on the Brooklyn charges.
The Colmer case appears against a backdrop of growing alarm about what looks increasingly like a serious sexual abuse problem in the Brooklyn Orthodox community, and a sense that Orthodox leaders and institutions are coming up short in their efforts to handle the problem themselves.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind has won praise (and some criticism) for shining a light on the problem, which he has characterized as at "epidemic proportions." But, as an indication of the community's continued resistance to reporting these alleged crimes directly to the police, a December 2008 article in the Jewish Press by Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum of the Rabbinical Alliance of America noted that "overcoming [the reluctance to report molestation to the authorities] could possibly be achieved by the creation of an intermediary entity that would ensure offenders are either put on the road to proper behavior or punished accordingly."
In the wake of highly publicized cases, including those of alleged pedophiles Yehuda Kolko, Avrohom Mondrowitz and Avrohom Reichman, a group called Survivors for Justice recently formed to help provide support for people who were sexually abused in the Orthodox communities and to aid them in reporting crimes to the police and in seeking redress in the civil courts.
And, more recently, state legislators have been working on competing bills to extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. At issue is the one-year "window" provision in Assemblywoman Marge Markey's bill that would allow previously time-barred victims a one-year window in which to file civil claims, regardless of when the abuse took place — something the Catholic Church and several major Orthodox Jewish organizations are opposing.
In the past several weeks, Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah, the network of Orthodox yeshivas and day schools, have already stated their opposition to the window provisions on the grounds that it could bankrupt many Orthodox institutions. Ohel has also expressed opposition to the window provision in the Markey bill, and proposed a "compromise" position, which calls for amnesty from civil actions for pedophiles who voluntarily come forward and admit their crimes within a one-year "window" period.
Ohel, which has a long history of dealing with sensitive issues within the Orthodox community, is standing, in a sense, between the Orthodox community and law enforcement and occupies a prominent — and heretofore little examined — place in the unfolding sexual abuse story in Brooklyn. Founded in 1969 to "provide homes and families for abandoned, neglected, abused and disabled Jewish children,"
Ohel now provides housing, foster care, outpatient counseling, at-home and sexual abuse services, as well as school-based programs and camps. While it has a respected reputation for providing much-needed services to its clients, the fact that Ohel has been willing to treat sex offenders referred from within the community, and who have not been reported to the police, has left the agency open to criticism that it may not be acting in the best interest of children in the community.
Asked multiple times over a period of more than a month for an explanation of its reporting policies, Ohel said in a statement provided just before the paper's deadline that the agency "fully complies with New York State laws, including those related to mandated reporting." The statement did not address the group's policies and practices when a non-court-mandated offender drops out of treatment.
Indeed, the agency's CEO, David Mandel, has made public statements, including at a community workshop last year in Baltimore, indicating that it is not always appropriate — even when legally permissible — to report sexual abuse to the police.
While Ohel did not respond to numerous written and e-mail requests for information about its Offender Treatment Program, published reports note that it was begun in early 1997, when, according, to a 2000 article in The Jewish Week, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes approached Mandel with a request to create a specialized program for Orthodox child molesters. The program was intended, according to the article, to address the fact that religious pedophiles were rarely prosecuted for their crimes.
This was — and to a great extent remains — the case because most Orthodox victims and their families are reluctant to report abuse to the authorities out of fear of intimidation and ostracism, as well as the desire to preserve the marriage prospects of the victim. Further, Hynes noted at the time, those molesters who were reported were apparently unwilling to participate in existing sex offender programs because, among other obstacles, men and women were treated together, a violation of communal norms. "There is not going to be an appropriate mix," explained Hynes at the time, "if you put them in with a group that is not chasidic, that is not Orthodox."
According to a 2001 JTA article, by that year over 30 people had received evaluation or treatment through the program and more were on a waiting list. Half of the offenders were referred through the criminal justice system and half through rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, "whom the community pressured to seek help without notifying authorities," The Jewish Week article noted. "A very small number of men have joined the program of their own accord," the article added.
However, the Colmer case, and at least two others described to The Jewish Week by sources close to Ohel, suggests that referring suspected child molesters for treatment in the absence of the involvement of law enforcement can result in the exposure of new potential victims to men whose danger to children was already evident.
Cardozo Law School's Hamilton notes that this practice also occurred within the Catholic Church, with disastrous results.
Just one example was the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico, where, according to Hamilton, priests "were sent for treatment from all over the country. They had a treatment center where the authorities were never notified. They would let the priests on the weekend go to the local parishes. The amount of abuse in New Mexico was astronomical because it was the locus for this activity."
Though Ohel's offenders' program was announced as a cooperative project between the Orthodox agency and the Brooklyn District Attorney, the DA's office has had very little to say about the program since it closed several years ago.
Without addressing the Colmer case specifically, DA spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told The Jewish Week that if an offender came into the program from the community, it would have been Ohel's responsibility to report, if it felt it necessary. If the offender had come through the DA's office and stopped treatment, Ohel would have been required to notify the DA. "If you don't show up [for treatment] you're going to face the penalties. The treatment would have been a part of their agreement with the DA's office," Schmetterer explained.
Schmetterer could not say what steps Ohel should have taken when an offender dropped out of Ohel's program but was not involved in a specific agreement with prosecutors, as occurred in the Stefan Colmer case. However, Schmetterer noted, "We always hope that if somebody is breaking the law that they would be reported to this office. If that didn't happen [in the Colmer case], it's unfortunate. Nobody has ever denied that [reporting] didn't happen [in some cases]. Our position then and now is if you have knowledge of a crime you should report it to us. I don't know who had knowledge of it and who dropped the ball."
Schmetterer added that "we would like to focus on the relationship we have [with Ohel] now [the new Kol Tzedek program, which offers a confidential hotline for Orthodox abuse victims]. Things are going very well. ... We have a good system in place that seems to be working."
But it comes too late for the two 13-year-olds who charge they were molested at the hands of Stefan Colmer, and for the others that law enforcement officials suspect he abused but who have not yet filed charges. And as Colmer, who is no longer married, whiles away his days in a Rikers cell awaiting trial, the debate about whether it is possible to police the pedophilia problem within the Orthodox community is only intensifying.
Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for Survivors for Justice, said: "We stand for the basic truth that pedophiles must be reported directly to the authorities, who alone have the ability to investigate, arrest and monitor the behavior of offenders.
"Treatment has its place, and that place is within the structure of our criminal justice system. The staggering number of incidents of abuse we have become aware of in the short time we have been existence," Soury continued, "does nothing but drive home the point that no rabbi or communal organization, no matter how well meaning or technically legal their actions, has the moral right to play Russian Roulette with our children's lives."