Toughen Laws Against Silence

By Asbury Park Press
(May 15, 2013)

That no one stands outside of the law has been a hard lesson to learn for both the Orthodox community in Lakewood and the Catholic hierarchy in New Jersey. In both cases, it is not clear yet whether the lesson has been fully learned.

It’s a promising sign, though, that Yosef Kolko, a camp counselor and teacher at Lakewood yeshivas, is going away to prison. On trial for the sexual abuse of a child in 2008 and 2009, he pleaded guilty on Monday — after two more people came forward to authorities late in the day on Friday to claim that he had abused them as well. Kolko faces 15 to 40 years in prison. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to file any additional charges related to the alleged additional victims.

No one is above the law — not individuals and not religious communities, be they Jewish or Catholic, Muslim or Hindu. Sexual abuse of a child is not only a moral or an ethical issue. It is a legal one, and for too long, many such crimes have been hidden under the cover of darkness, wrapped in the veil of religious tradition and with laws that provide a slap on the wrist, at best, to those who fail to report suspected abuse.

In the Kolko case, it took far too long for justice to be done. The boy’s family had first turned to a local rabbinical court, which did nothing. Only when they went to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office did the wheels of justice begin to turn. Yet some in the Lakewood Orthodox community believe that going to secular authorities is treasonous, if not blasphemous.

Those beliefs have intimidated the families of abuse victims in Lakewood. The boy and his family were ostracized by some in their community. Some even embarked on a campaign to get the boy and his father to drop the criminal charges. This, despite the fact that state law requires anyone who suspects child abuse to report those suspicions to the state Division of Youth and Family Services. That law needs to be strengthened. The current one-year statute of limitations for a violation is grossly inadequate, given the horrific nature of the crime. And the penalty for not reporting child abuse — merely a disorderly persons offense — needs to be stiffened.

The shameful attitude toward child sexual abuse exposed in the Kolko case has a home as well in the Catholic Church. The recent case of Newark Archbishop John J. Myers is a sad example. Myers turned a blind eye to legally binding agreements that forbade the Rev. Michael Fugee from working with children after he was convicted of groping a teenage boy. Despite that order, and with Myers’ apparent blessing, Fugee continued working with children until he was forced to resign this month. Myers also should step down.

When it comes to the sexual abuse of children, church and state should be allies, not adversaries. Religious communities need to stand with the victim. The state, which should toughen the laws that punish silence, must do the same.