By Kathleen Hopkins (Asbury Park Press)
June 17, 2013
LAKEWOOD — The choice before a deeply religious father was one he never wanted to make.
His son had been molested by a fellow Orthodox Jew, and the local rabbis to whom he reported the abuse did nothing to remove the offender from his positions as camp counselor and schoolteacher.
The father had to choose: He could follow Orthodox tradition and allow the local rabbis to continue to handle the matter, or he could go to the police.
The father went to the police. Now the molester, Yosef Kolko, is headed to state prison.
But some in the community saw the father as the offender for involving the secular authorities in an Orthodox matter. He was ostracized from his community in Lakewood, where he was a respected rabbi, Ocean County prosecutors said. He resigned from his job at Lakewood’s prestigious rabbinical college and moved his family to the Midwest.
Now, debate swirls around the wisdom of the religious taboo that protects suspected abusers from authorities and defies state law.
The ancient taboo, known as “mesirah,” forbids Jews from turning over fellow Jews to secular authorities, but some say the concept is no longer relevant in today’s society.
“The bottom line is there’s no justification for not participating in the process for reporting these crimes,” said Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn, a psychologist in Jerusalem who has written three reference books on child and domestic abuse in the Jewish community.
As New Jersey law stands now, anyone with knowledge of suspected child abuse is mandated to report it to authorities, whether it be to police or child-protective services. But failure to report the suspicions is only a disorderly persons offense, which is why some state legislators want to come down harder on those who hide molesters.
State Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, a Republican who represents portions of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties, sponsored a bill that would make it a fourth-degree indictable offense for anyone with knowledge of a child being sexually abused to fail to report the abuse. As a fourth-degree offense, failing to report sexual abuse of a child would result in up to 18 months imprisonment or a fine up to $10,000, or both.
To move the bill forward in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Bateman relinquished sponsorship to state Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden. The measure was approved June 6 by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee and is heading to the full Senate for a vote.
The impetus for the bill was not the Lakewood case, but that of convicted molester Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University, as well as cover-ups by the Catholic Church of sexual abuse by priests, Bateman said.
“If you look at Penn State, if a number of individuals had done what they were supposed to do, it would not have gone on,” Bateman said of the molestation at Penn State by Sandusky. “Sometimes the cover-up is as bad as the crime.
“With the Catholic Church, unfortunately, they have a terrible track record of moving these priests (accused of sexual abuse) from one parish to another,” Bateman said. “I’m hoping this (bill) will help.”
'I felt that children were in danger'
Ben Hirsch, co-founder of Survivors for Justice, a New York-based advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse in Orthodox communities, said he knows of similar situations in Lakewood’s Orthodox community, where the organization also does advocacy work. In one case, a man suspected of sexually abusing a boy was sent to a prestigious yeshiva in Israel, Hirsch said.
What came to light during the recent Kolko trial, through the testimony of the victim’s father, was that a number of rabbis in the community knew of the allegations of molestation against Kolko and did nothing to remove him from his positions as a counselor at Yachad, a summer camp run by Yeshiva Bais Hatorah School in Lakewood, and as a teacher at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim, also in Lakewood. That is what prompted the father to go to the Prosecutor’s Office five months after he first brought the abuse to the attention of the rabbis.
Testifying at Kolko’s trial, the father explained how difficult the decision was for him.
“Going to law enforcement is not, at this time, common within the Orthodox Jewish community,” he said. “Even when it’s necessary, it’s considered unusual. ... People might believe that the alleged molester is innocent, and they would give the person going to law enforcement a very hard time.”
But the father also explained why he would rather face the repercussions: “I felt that children were in danger.”
The Asbury Park Press is withholding the father’s name to protect the identity of the victim.
Kolko, 39, of Geffen Court, Lakewood, pleaded guilty May 13 to sexually assaulting the boy, who met his abuser while attending Yachad at age 11. Kolko could face 40 years in prison, although Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson said he is not inclined to give him more than 15 years.
The guilty plea came in the midst of Kolko’s trial, after two more young people came forward to authorities and claimed they, too, were victimized by Kolko.
Laura Pierro, a supervising assistant Ocean County prosecutor who handled the Kolko case, said by the time she learned of all the people who had knowledge of the boy’s molestation and failed to report it, she was hamstrung to prosecute them because the one-year statute of limitations to bring a disorderly persons charge already had lapsed.
The pending Senate bill, in addition to enhancing penalties for failing to report suspected child abuse, would extend the statute of limitations to prosecute the crime from one year to five years, Bateman said.
Reports to police are rare
Thomas F. Kelaher, the mayor of Toms River who served as Ocean County prosecutor from 2002 to 2007, said he thinks the bill is a good idea.
“If there’s only a one-year statute of limitations, you can pretty much do a good job of covering something up for a year,” Kelaher said.
In the Kolko case, a Beis Din, which is a rabbinical tribunal, sent Kolko to therapy, but the tribunal disbanded and Kolko quit his counseling sessions.
“The idea that a Beis Din has the right to bypass the police is very problematic,” Eidensohn said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. “They have no authority to force anyone to testify or to even show up. ….If a person doesn’t agree with the Beis Din, they can ignore it.”
Lakewood police chief Robert Lawson acknowledged how rare it is for members of the township’s Orthodox Jewish communities to report crimes to the police.
“It is not the norm,” he said. “It does happen on occasion and usually it is when someone is frustrated, as is what happened in the Kolko case.”
Kelaher said he recalls few prosecutions emanating from Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish community during his tenure as prosecutor.
“I don’t remember having any domestic violence or sexual abuse cases,” Kelaher said. “It would be strange for me to think that domestic violence doesn’t occur in communities like Lakewood’s Orthodox community.”
But there was a case involving the abduction and rape of an Orthodox woman in Lakewood that occurred in 2006, while Kelaher was prosecutor.
“Some of the people in that community said, ‘The only reason you people are involved is because we need your help in finding her,’ ” Kelaher recalled of the case.
The woman’s assailant was not Jewish.
Obsolete rule today?
A main obstacle to Orthodox Jews reporting crimes to police is the concept of mesirah, which has been the subject of sharp debate in recent years.
The taboo, traced to ancient times, existed because Jews were persecuted by abusive governments throughout the centuries. Turning over a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities placed the entire community under scrutiny and at risk, Eidensohn explained.
“The well-being of the community was in such a delicate state that anybody who caused the king to be angry at the Jewish community was a threat to the community of Jews,” he said.
Some say it is obsolete today.
“That premise no longer exists once you enter modern society and you have a justice system that doesn’t discriminate against Jews, which is what we have in America,” said Hirsch of Survivors for Justice.
Eidensohn said the concept of mesirah never applied to violent criminals and sexual predators in the first place because society needs to be protected from them.
“The Jewish Halacha (law) is very clear,” Eidensohn said. “If someone is a threat to you, you are allowed to go to the police. If someone is a threat to other people, you are allowed to go to the police. … Five years ago, the most senior rabbis wrote a letter about the horrible consequences of sexual abuse and gave permission to go to the police.”
Eidensohn said Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, who is deputy to the head of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court, has written that child abuse should be reported to the police — something Eidensohn said he has publicized in his own books.
Michael Salamon, a psychologist on staff at North Shore Long Island Jewish Medical Center and author of Abuse in the Jewish Community, said Sternbuch is considered brilliant by many, but is not followed by everyone.
“Jewish law is based on the rabbinic tradition of debate,” Salamon explained. “The debate is not whether you can report (sexual abuse), but whether you should go to your local rabbi first for permission to report it. My position is, you need to report it, period. It’s not a rabbi’s job.”
Eidensohn said some rabbis view sexual abuse as a sin, but not something that is damaging to the victim, and they try to conceal the allegations because they are concerned about the perception of the community, he said.
“There are rabbis who think they can control a molester,” Eidensohn said. “That attitude is dying.”
But not for everyone in Lakewood, he asserted.
“They still hold by the original views,” Eidensohn said of the Orthodox leadership in Lakewood. “They are not only ignorant of the psychological consequences (of sexual abuse), they are unaware of the Jewish law published in the last five to 10 years that allows going to the police. They’re basically out of touch.”
Eidensohn followed the Kolko case closely and wrote about it on his blog, Daas Torah.
The Press made attempts to reach representatives of the Vaad, a council of Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish leaders, and Beth Medrash Govaha, its rabbinical college, to obtain comment for this article, but was unsuccessful.
Hirsch said he believes the only way the problem will be addressed is if authorities prosecute those who cover it up.
“Law enforcement in Lakewood should be doing everything possible to encourage reporting (of sexual abuse) and making arrests for obstruction of justice,” Hirsch said.