April 13, 2010
Throughout the four-day trial of Baruch Mordechai Lebovits, his lawyer, Arthur Aidala, sought to portray Lebovits as an upstanding citizen in his chassidic community, who freely gave money to those in need and dutifully took care of his seven children and 21 grandchildren. All in contrast, Aidala maintained, to the 22 year-old who accused Lebovits of molesting him numerous times from May 2004 to February 2005, when he was 16. The victim had a history of drug abuse; he had served time in jail and, according to Aidala, was lying about the sexual abuse to extort money from Lebovits and his family.
The contrast Aidala drew stood until the beginning of Justice Patricia DiMango’s statement during Lebovits’s sentencing on April 12. DiMango said she read Lebovits’ probation report and found that he had suffered from sexual abuse for six months as a child while living with his uncle in London and again at the hands of an older teenage friend. As an adult, Lebovits had a gambling addiction for which he eventually received treatment.
Suddenly, the similarities between the two men – Lebovits, a 59-year-old successful travel agent who sat hunched before the judge, and his victim, a pale man in a black suit who sat in the second row with his mother and two siblings – came into sharp focus.
“The victim suffered from an addiction, so does the defendant…the victim has stolen money, the defendant has squandered… money,” DiMango explained. “Neither is a rabbi.”
But there is one difference, the judge continued.
“The defendant stands convicted of eight counts of…sexual abuse” and the victim, whose name The Jewish Star is withholding, “does not.”
Justice DiMango sentenced Lebovits to the maximum one to four years for each charge. He will not be eligible for parole for 10 years and could spend as long as 32 years behind bars. Still, Lebovits is not likely to drop from view. He plans to appeal his conviction and faces two more trials on similar charges.
The “insular nature of the [Orthodox] community,” was pierced, if just for a moment, by Lebovits’ prosecution and conviction, Di Mango said, adding that despite the 80 letters she received supporting Lebovits, she did not believe “someone deemed a humanitarian… is not unanswerable or incapable of vicious acts.”
“It is important for the courts to send a clear message that abusing and harming children will not be tolerated,” she asserted.
The packed courtroom was divided equally between supporters of Lebovits and of his victim. The groups sat on opposite sides in the courtroom; the middle seats were shared in an uneasy peace. The sentencing began after noon, nearly three hours late, while Lebovits was brought from Rikers Island. His supporters, mostly chasidim, said tehillim; some slept. A police detective gave testimony about an unrelated murder case.
Beth, who asked that her last name not be used, came from Passaic to show her support for the victim’s family. Her son was also a victim of sexual abuse.
“I understand what it’s like to sit alone in a court room,” she said. “I wanted to make sure they weren’t sitting alone.”
Lebovits’ daughter, a lithe woman with a black wig and red-rimmed eyes, held her ground to the end.
“My father is 100 percent innocent,” she said. She confronted an anti-abuse activist in the hallway before the sentencing. “Don’t you think we’re victims too?” she asked.
Until it was his turn to address the court, the victim sat quietly, his long hair covered by a small velvet yarmulke held in place with a bobby pin.
“Mr. Lebovits showed me no mercy,” he said. “He showed no remorse.”
The victim thanked the justice system and said it gave him hope for his life.
“If the justice I’ve experienced here is what my life can feel like, I know I can overcome my many challenges,” he said, before concluding, “My hope is that because of our efforts here my children will not have to deal with the threat of pedophiles being protected and walking free in our community.”
In longer remarks his father quoted Shakespeare, King David, and Martin Luther King Jr., and also criticized the Lebovits family.
“You all knew who he was and how he was destroying children for years,” he accused.
Lebovits made no comment after the verdict was announced. Aidala asked that Lebovits be allowed to keep his yarmulke and religious items, be provided with kosher food, and be placed in protective custody, because of an earlier incident with another inmate.
Ben Hirsch, the president of Survivors for Justice, an organization that provides support to victims of sexual abuse, praised the verdict.
“The fact that Lebovits chose not to address the court or the victim, compounded by his refusal to acknowledge guilt and his continued intimidation of witnesses and the victim– not to mention the 80 letters of support submitted by his supporters– may well have earned him the harsh prison term,” said Hirsch.
Joseph Diangello, a victim of sexual abuse whose gothic appearance hides a Chassidic upbringing, was equally exuberant.
“From now on victims of sexual abuse in the Chassidic community that have no voice with the people that are supposed to protect them, will have a voice in the court of law,” Diangello said.
After the sentencing, the victim’s father said he felt that the message was clear that even people in the highest position of power could not escape justice. Earlier in the day, he said, he had been assaulted and thrown out of a Brooklyn shul, but he was not complaining.
“My son is becoming a new man,” he said.