By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
Issue of Oct. 31, 2008 / 2 Cheshvan 5769
Assemblyman Dov Hikind says he has selected a new leader for his task force to combat sexual abuse in the orthodox Jewish community. While Hikind said the name would only be available later this week, he elaborated that the new leader's responsibilities will consist of gathering and organizing the information about sexual abuse that Hikind intends to present to the national Rabbinical leaders. The new leader's role seems different from that of Rabbi Bentzion Twerski, the task force's high profile initial leader, who resigned after a week because of family pressure.
On his radio program last Saturday night, Hikind gave a deadline of January for the end of "Phase 1" of his campaign, which consists of creating a dossier of information about sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community, in particular the Chareidi community, culled from interviews with abuse victims, therapists and even accused pedophiles. Hikind is convinced that once he presents the information to the Rabbinical leadership, they will act.
"People are skeptical about the Rabbis," Hikind said. "I prefer not to believe that, but we'll find out soon enough. I'm committed to this. The more I listen, [the more] I can't imagine anyone not being committed."
Hikind intends to create multi-faceted approach to the sexual abuse problem including prevention aspects for schools and parents as well as the creation of a network so other schools would know when a teacher was fired for sexual misconduct.
Hikind said that he spoke to the Agudath Israel of America, to take up the issue, but was declined. Rabbi David Zweibel, Agudath Israel's Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs, said that the characterization was not correct, but did confirm a preliminary discussion with Hikind.
Hikind also stressed that his office has been covertly dealing with the sexual abuse problem, by meeting with accused pedophiles and getting them into therapy.
"I have one pedophile that calls me every single day to say 'am I okay?' 'Have you heard anything?'" Hikind said.
The issue of sexual abuse has always been a difficult topic in the Chassidic community. High social pressure to conform, social stigmatization and a fear of secular authorities has made identifying and stopping sexual abuse difficult. While all information about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community is anecdotal, Hikind called the issue "a disaster".
Hikind also said that nearly everyone who comes to his office is not willing to press charges.
One victim of sexual abuse in Williamsburg whom The Jewish Star spoke to agreed with Hikind's assessment and asked to remain anonymous, because in his words, "he had too much to lose" by being identified as a victim.
"If you get mugged on the street, it's a horrific experience," he said, "but what happens after that? You don't go crazy. You call the cops, everyone's on your side. [With sexual abuse] you're attacked the worst way possible. You have to live with it. You can't get it out of the way."
He added, "We're so concerned about bugs and water, but rape is permitted."
One caller to Hikind's radio program spoke about how Yehuda Kolko, who was accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse and convicted on charges of child endangerment, was still welcomed in his shul.
Hikind believes he's already reached a milestone in dealing with sexual abuse inside the Orthodox Jewish community because people are finally talking about the topic.
"I know that for every person who comes forward, there are hundreds who are not coming forward," Hikind said. "Every time we do a show on this subject, every time we rub again, it opens up for more people."
In a follow-up to a recent story, a second victim has come forward in the case against Avrohom Reichman. Hikind has said, though, that the second victim has refused to press charges despite being in the statute of limitiations. Hikind accused UTA of "dragging their feet" and said that the second victim would be taking a lie detector test and the results would be given to the UTA. Reichman failed a lie detector test in April. Hikind also told The Jewish Star that the UTA had fired four teachers for accusations of sexual misconduct.
On the Chaptzem web site, a popular blog that bills itself as the "Only Hemishe News Center," photos of a convicted child molester living in Boro Park were featured and residents were asked to be on the watch for him during Simchat Torah. Another blog, DaathTorah, written by Dr. Daniel Eidensohn, the author of "Yad Moshe and Daas Torah," featured a discussion with Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch about sexual abuse and when police should be called. The blog also included a psak from Rav Shmuel Auerbach that permits castration for sexual molesters.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University and one of the most vocal Rabbinical leaders against sexual abuse, said that Hikind's campaign is a necessary step but the results will be hard to judge.
"The real issue is the morae of the society," Rabbi Blau said. "Do we have a society where one is willing to go to non-Jewish authorities in the matter? Will there be support for people who do that? Will they be seen as troublemakers or people who are willing to help society be rid of people who are hurting many people? Hopefully [Hikind's campaign] can be a factor to change the mentality of the society. The Orthodox Jewish world is a complex one."