by Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
November 25, 2008
Ever since Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind revealed two months ago that he had assembled files on "hundreds" of people alleging sexual abuse at the hands of Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva employees, he has been under scrutiny both from inside and outside the Orthodox Jewish community.
Now, two weeks after Hikind was served with a subpoena by an attorney representing alleged sexual abuse victims, that scrutiny has intensified.
While many have praised the Brooklyn Democrat for bringing much-needed attention to this issue, early criticism of his efforts came, perhaps surprisingly, from some of the victims' groups and advocates. They argued that Hikind, while deserving of credit for trying to shed light on the problem, had actually harmed their cause by attempting to deal with the issue within the Orthodox community. The best route, they claim, is to take such cases directly to law enforcement, who are in the best position to investigate allegations and alone have the power to arrest, prosecute and register offenders.
Michael Dowd, an attorney representing alleged victims of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a former teacher and principal at Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn, recently subpoenaed Hikind for records and testimony regarding rabbis and yeshiva employees who have allegedly sexually abused children, and rabbinic leaders who may have protected the abusers. Dowd is interested in any information Hikind may have gathered that could be relevant to his clients' cases.
At the time Hikind was served, in a story first reported by The Jewish Week, he told the paper that he had given the subpoena to a lawyer for the State Assembly for review, but vowed to "go to jail for 10 years" rather than reveal the names of the alleged victims, whom he has guaranteed anonymity. He repeated this vow to The New York Times in a subsequent story.
It appears that his public stance has thus far had the effect of reframing the issue, turning the focus from exposing and ridding the community of pedophiles to protecting victims.
Hikind has stated that he plans instead to take his information - which he says includes the names of 60 alleged sexual predators - first to the rabbis, as part of a comprehensive effort to address a problem he has characterized as "overwhelming." He has noted that while he personally encourages victims to go to the police, cultural taboos against informing to the secular authorities, as well as shame and fear of stigma, tend to prevent most strictly Orthodox victims from doing so.
Neither Dowd, Hikind nor a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver would comment publicly on whether or how Hikind has responded to the subpoena. But Dowd does not see compliance with it as in any way at odds with Hikind's commitment to protect victims. He maintains that he is not seeking to make public the names of victims but is interested in information about alleged perpetrators and their protectors.
"The names of the victims will be protected and not disclosed publicly," said Dowd, who successfully represented a number of men claiming to have been abused by Catholic priests. "We have no intention of doing damage to victims that have already been abused.
But on the other hand," he added, "I would say that it's fairly obvious that as well-intentioned as Assemblyman Hikind is, he hasn't solved anything of the problem, and until we take some action against the predators, nothing's going to happen. Unfortunately, the leadership within the community has not been willing to take the kind of action that would oust these people."
Dowd also stressed that there are mechanisms by which the names of victims can be kept confidential and that he has "had no client in 12 years who was a minor and who was sexually abused whose name has been published in the media. We've taken real steps to carve out protective orders to protect the identity of victims. What we want to do is to protect the victims, but not to protect, but to expose, the sexual predators amongst us."
In an editorial last week, however, the Forward characterized the situation as a "face-off" between a "Catholic lawyer and an Orthodox Jewish legislator" and came out on Hikind's side. "Getting victims to talk will require far more trust than the police or courts can hope to win," the editorial asserted.
"Hikind," the editorial continued, "has that kind of trust and he is making a breakthrough where countless others have failed. He should be allowed to continue developing his methods and pursuing his facts."
Others, however, have expressed serious reservations about Hikind's methods.
One of Hikind's most outspoken critics has been Marci Hamilton, author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children" and a professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. In an op-ed that appeared in last week's Daily News, Hamilton accused Hikind, "in the of name of protecting victims" of "shielding people accused of committing the most heinous crimes imaginable."
Among other things, Hamilton urged the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, to convene a grand jury to investigate abuse in the Orthodox communities and called for an amendment to the state mandatory reporter law to include elected representatives.
Meanwhile, Hikind received criticism from his own constituents in Brooklyn's Orthodox community.
Reacting to postings on the popular blog VosIzNeias.com calling Hikind a hero and urging him to resist Dowd's subpoena, the mother of an alleged abuse victim criticized Hikind in a widely circulated e-mail.
Pearl Engelman, whose son Joel has sued United Talmudical Academy in connection with sexual abuse he alleges he suffered at the hands of his fifth-grade teacher when he was 8, warned that Hikind can not become a "martyr/hero to the cause."
Noting Hikind's failure to make good on a public promise to prevent her son's alleged molester, Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, from returning to his teaching job last September, Engelman wrote: "Dov Hikind is no hero! In my book he is an accomplice, because at the very least, if he was not successful in getting Satmar to remove Reichman, it was his great responsibility to innocent children ... to have let the parents, who are being kept in the dark by the school, know that Reichman is a great danger to all children in the school. Hikind [has] given in to the machinations of Satmar who want to keep Reichman in the system at all costs."
Hikind's efforts to shine a light on the problem have received qualified praise from Survivors for Justice, a recently formed group of victims of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community.
"We applaud Dov Hikind's courageous efforts to expose this terrible problem in an effort to eradicate it from our community," said Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for the group. But, he added, "the rabbis have known about this for decades and have not only done little to end this abberant and illegal behavior, in some quarters they have protected the perpetrators.
"These people must be exposed publicly and be prosecuted in our courts criminally and civilly," Soury continued. "We must shine a very public light on this problem and, more importantly encourage victims and their families to go to the authorities to expose the pedophiles."