Top Doc Scared Off Panel On Rabbinic Sex Molestors
Tapped by Hikind, Twerski cites threats; pol ready to ‘name names’ of alleged abusers.
Parents who fail to report sex abuse are “guilty for every other child that is abused after their child,” says Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
by Hella Winston
Special To The Jewish Week
A prominent Orthodox rabbi and psychologist has been intimidated into quitting as head of a just-formed task force dealing with rabbinic sex abuse of minors, organized by Assemblyman Dov Hikind this week.
Dr. Benzion Twerski told The Jewish Week Wednesday that he was quitting the task force because “I was prosecuted in the street for daring to join such a venture.”
“To protect myself, my family, and reputation, I decided to withdraw from this project,” he wrote in an e-mail as the paper was going to press with a story announcing Hikind’s formation of the task force. “From this point, I am avoiding participation in any forms of public service. Public life is not for me.” Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents Borough Park and Flatbush, deplored Twerski’s abrupt departure from his new panel.
“He was basically forced to resign,” said Hikind. “He was literally put against the wall, and he felt he had no choice. We’ll get somebody else who’s very respected. But that’s not the point. The point is they got to him, they threatened him.”
Twerski’s dramatic departure came just as Hikind was rolling out the new panel, planned as the next step in a personal crusade against child sex abuse in the Orthodox community that he has come to view as an epidemic.
Hikind said he had amassed a dossier with the cases of “hundreds” of individuals who say they have been sexually molested by rabbis and other Orthodox community members during their childhood. And he threatened to broadcast the names of their abusers if community leaders do not respond to his call for action against them.
“Let me tell you,” he said in an interview last week, “when there’s a person who we have confirmed through a variety of people has been doing terrible things” and those who know refuse to go to the authorities, “I am prepared to name names. I am prepared to be sued by those pedophiles. If they’re innocent, let them sue me.”
Speaking after a rash of highly publicized sexual molestation cases in the Orthodox community, Hikind said, “I have been learning that a lot of people out there know who the bad guys are. Where have I been? How come no one talked to me, how come no one came to me?”
Now, Hikind says, he is more determined than ever to establish a community task force to address the issue. Though vague on the panel’s broader makeup and specific plans, Hikind ultimately seeks to develop a list of sexual molesters in Orthodox schools to keep them away from children.
Neither man would specify the nature of the threats made against Twerski to force his departure. But Hikind called them “pathetic and sad.”
“My heart goes out to him,” he said. “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Things are opening up, people are coming forward, but we are still so far away.”
Hikind’s new crusade follows several cases in which individuals — often adults now — have gone public with accounts of sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of respected yeshiva teachers when they were children. The alleged victims have spoken, too, of the rejection or even intimidation they experienced from their yeshivas and rabbinic leaders when they tried to report what had happened to them.
In one of the few cases in which victims went to the secular court system, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko of Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Flatbush was convicted on two counts of child endangerment last April. Another alleged abuser, Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz, now awaits extradition from Israel to Brooklyn, where he has been charged with sexual abuse of children.
More recently Joel Engelman, a former student at the Satmar chasidic sect’s United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg, has alleged he was abused when he eight years old by Rabbi Avrohom Reichman. Engelman, now 23, has filed suit against Rabbi Reichman and UTA, which, he says, violated its promise to him to dismiss Rabbi Reichman in exchange for his not going public. UTA has yet to respond to the suit.
Hikind, who began broadcasting radio shows addressing the issue bluntly about a month ago said, “For a couple of weeks now, so many people have been coming forward. It’s made me absolutely sick, to have to listen to this, to be so shocked, to see so much pain, so much suffering. ... I actually feel that [this] may be the most important thing I’ve done in 26 years. Because you’re talking about saving lives.”
At times during his interview, Hikind sounded vague when pressed on just what his task force would do and how it proposed to go about doing it. The panel will present its findings to “leading rabbis” in various Orthodox communities, he said. And the rabbis, he predicted, “will be absolutely flabbergasted” by what they hear. His ultimate goal, said Hikind, is to establish a communal registry that would list the names of teachers removed from schools due to abusive behavior.
“We need to develop a system, a roster, a protocol needs to be developed,” he said. “If you have a pedophile who is teaching in a yeshiva, that person needs to be on a list, and before any other yeshiva hires a person, you need to be able to go to a roster and see if that rebbe was teaching somewhere else and got thrown out.”
But at another point, apparently recognizing that many schools are often reluctant to dismiss such teachers in the first place, Hikind appeared to envision a more ambitious, quasi-judicial function for his panel.
“It’s sort of hard to investigate yourself,” Hikind admitted. “There’s got to be a system where trusted people, respected leaders, who are not directly a part of that particular organization examine everything. Look, I wasn’t there when these boys were abused, nor was anyone else. So we have to make judgments. We do that all the time.”
Some advocates for the abused children, while praising Hikind for highlighting an issue about which they claim Orthodox Jews are in denial, voiced reservations about his plan.
The father of one child allegedly abused by Rabbi Kolko, who spoke on condition of anonymity, derided the notion of the community policing itself, citing his own unsuccessful efforts to marshal rabbinic action in his son’s case.
“I commend Dov for what he is doing,” said the father of the 10-year-old boy, who was allegedly molested in first grade, “but all these rabbis will make a farce of it. It touches their business. All these schools are somehow connected together.”
Another long-time community activist, who spoke to The Jewish Week on condition of anonymity due to the controversial nature of the issue, said, “Dov’s actions of these past few months are moving to anyone who cares about this issue. Yet we are very concerned that he has set back the cause by offering community members an alternative to the secular authorities.
Reporting the abusers to the rabbis is “akin to asking the fox to watch the henhouse,” this source said. “We spent close to three decades reporting abusers to their yeshiva employers, local rabbis and ‘gedolim’ only to watch time and time again as the information we provided was used to protect the abusers and vilify the victims.
“There is a functioning system in place that we will never have the resources or expertise to replicate, “ he continued, referring to the secular authorities.
“Indeed, to suggest that we are doing so is to do a grave injustice. If people believe we have an alternative to the police, which we do not and never will have, they will rely upon this belief and nothing will change. We tried this and came to the painful conclusion that it can not work.”
Hikind himself took a nuanced position on the issue of going to outside authorities. “Look, I would like to see people report to the police,” he said. “But there are some realities in our communities. ... People in our community, as you know, don’t want to go public. They want to keep it quiet, which is terrible. It’s sinful. I use the word sinful because for someone not to come forward in a situation of abuse of their child is not only to be guilty for not pressing issues for their own child, but they are guilty for every other child that is abused after their child. And they have to live with that. I keep on repeating that to everyone.”
But given the reality, “At least let’s get these people off the street,” he said. “With regard to institutions, where we find teachers, one of the things we are going to work on, if we establish that a teacher is a pedophile, that name needs to go on a list. Before anyone hires anyone, they must look at that list.”
Others active on this issue believe that legislative reforms are also crucial. As an assemblyman, Hikind said he is supportive on this front. He voiced strong backing, for example, for an extension of the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sexual molestation, and for the alleged victims of such abuse to file civil suits.
Under current law, the state cannot pursue criminal prosecutions of an alleged molester once the alleged victim turns 23. A victim himself must bring a civil suit against his molester or against the school he alleges failed to protect him by between one and six years after his 18th birthday, depending on the nature of the allegation.
But child victims of sexual abuse often do not understand or come to terms with their experiences — or sometimes, even recall them — until years, or even decades after they take place. Members of the Orthodox community have the additional burden of overcoming their peer group’s hostility to turning to secular authorities on such a sensitive matter. By then, the statute of limitations often bars their entry to the courtroom.
There are currently several bills in the state Legislature to address this problem, though none have passed in the Senate yet. A bill to extend the statute of limitations and open a one-year window for victims to seek damages regardless of their age recently passed in the Assembly but has repeatedly stalled in the Senate.
“The statute of limitations needs to be extended,” said Hikind. “I’m totally for that . . . I will do everything in the world to make that happen because now I realize how critical that is.”
Elliot Pasik, an attorney in private practice and a co-founder of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, a newly organized grassroots group, has also been pressing for legislation that would require mandatory background checks and fingerprinting of teachers in non-public schools. In addition, his group is working for the passage of a law that would require teachers in non-public schools to report cases of abuse when they see evidence of it or it is reported to them. Public school officials are already required to do so.
New York — unlike 25 other states — does not now classify clergy as mandated reporters, which means that they are not required to report evidence of sex abuse or violence to state child welfare authorities.
Legislation requiring fingerprinting and background checks for prospective non-public school faculty was defeated in the Assembly last year but reintroduced this year by Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. The legislation does not, however, have the support of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side).
Agudath Israel, an umbrella group of ultra-traditional Orthodox organizations, is opposed to both the mandated reporting and finger printing, and background check legislation.
Pasik, who currently represents Engelman in his lawsuit against Rabbi Reichman and United Talmudical Academy, said, “New York State has the weakest laws in the country. [Parochial schools] are near-totally unsupervised by the state, which is a throwback to pre-16th century English common law when the church could give sanctuary [to fugitives]. This has to change.”
Hikind would not commit yet on such specifics. “I am sitting with my legislative person right now. We are just going to start our conversation. It’s sort of a new look for me at everything,” he said.”
But he added: “Anything that contributes to apprehending the bad guy and helping the victims, we need to do — period, end of the story. That’s my position. I have a new perspective because I’ve taken a close look, because I’ve spent almost four weeks now listening non-stop to horror stories, and then I’m told by people today who met with me, ‘Dov, it’s worse than even you think right now.’ I said, ‘what?’”
Dr. Twerski explains:
"I am taking a few minutes to make some statements in response to the article about my departure from Dov Hikind’s project and the events that triggered this.
Firstly, I have extreme respect for Dov Hikind, and I share in his mission to make a difference in this painful and destructive issue. I was eager to join with him to create a Task Force that would actually lead to reduction of this terrible problem while doing everything from within the community. It is with sadness that I left the position, and I will always to continue to consider Dov a good colleague and friend. I know he feels the same.
For quite some years, I had invested time and effort, without compensation, for various projects that were being done for the Klal. Even at times when my own financial situation was difficult, I extended myself at great cost for the hatzolas nefashos of youth at risk, addictions, etc. I am not interested in writing my own hesped, but there is much that has never been publicized and won’t be. My expectations were that the mission that I was entering would be understood as something that will be done properly and sensitively. It seems that some understood this quite erroneously.
For several days, I was approached by individuals, some stating that they would cross the street if they were to meet me while walking with their children. Others told me that they would not accept my child into their class if assigned. Others used euphemisms that I refuse to repeat. Family members were likewise confronted by all sorts of comments and phone calls. My married children had been told to fear ever getting shidduchim for their children. Basically, I was left to choose between abandoning my family for this mission, or to take the painful step that I did.
Molestation is underestimated in our community. I never proclaimed it an epidemic. I have not found any reliable statistics. But each victim is a precious neshomoh, an “olam molei” that is totally destroyed. Some victims leave the derech, others struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, some have major hurdles in establishing their own married lives, and still others become molesters themselves. There are frequent comments such as “It does not happen in my yeshiva” which constitutes denial. Perhaps there are no incidents, but one never knows. We’re talking about things that occur in secrecy. I never looked at this problem as one of quantity. I am concerned with the severity. Even the minutest percentage of foreign objects in food will prompt a recall. Our children deserve a zero tolerance for violations of their safety. And for those who insinuated that I was going to go after yeshivos and mosdos hachinuch, I will add that the abuse that occurs in these holy settings is a small percentage of what occurs in various other locations. To combat the problem, we need to begin somewhere.
The intent of the Task Force was to devise systems that would be implemented by the yeshivos themselves to accept complaints, evaluate them, and move the cases onto the next level, whatever was determined by a body of individuals that would include poskim. No fox guarding the henhouse either, as the system would comprise individuals from outside the yeshiva as well to prevent denial and bias from interfering with the process. Part of this process would help filter out complaints that are baseless, either by exaggeration, inaccuracy, or pure fabrication. To consider this project a new “abuse clinic”, or a molestation police brigade is completely groundless.
So I spent several days watching these gross misperceptions feed the mouths of “holchei rochil”. Not one person called me to inquire about the mission, and there was never a chance to explain any of this to anyone before the hatchet began swinging.
Most bothersome to me is that this occurred during Chodesh Elul, when we all need to be doing some self-exploration – cheshbon hanefesh and teshuvah. We will need to face the upcoming yemai hadin, where we will each stand in our individual judgments. I will face Avinu Malkeinu with the position that “I tried to help Your children but they refused to let me.” What will the “holchei rochil” offer in their defense? “Hashem, we just shot down an “osek betzorchei tzibbur be’emunoh”. You shot the wrong person.
I am not personally offended. I have learned to tolerate being called names. I’ve been around a little. I grieve for the work that could have been done, and my tefiloh is that someone capable is found who can see this mission through to success. I grieve for the pain and anger that this whole situation caused for myself, my family, for Dov Hikind, and for all others who recognize the seriousness of the mission. I grieve for the pain and suffering that innocent neshamos will experience in the absence of a system that could stop it. The flak will eventually fade, but the damage has been done. If nothing else, it is a really serious lesson in hilchos lashon horah.
In reality, every frum Yid benefits from the things that askanim do. From intervening with governmental matters, legal issues, dealing with yeshivos, getting streets blocked for various events, and others too numerous to mention, we all derive much benefit from what they do. Nearly all, or perhaps absolutely all, function selflessly. Hatzoloh, Shomrim, and Chaverim are totally volunteer staffed. Since when do we carelessly and viciously attack an askan? Was there any posek asked about doing this? Was this a campaign by a group or individual, or was this just the street gossip fueling itself? I may never know. But I have been sensitized away from participating in askonus.
I already contacted others whose projects are precious and worthy, and withdrew from taking any askonus role. Without any hesitation, I will share my thoughts and opinions with any of them, including Dov. But no one will be able to hold me responsible for something I did not do.
To all the voices in the street that made this happen, my conscience is clear entering the days of selichos and yemai hadin. Are yours?"
Don’t Disturb the Party
Ever Wonder What Our Children Are Thinking?
By: Yakov Horowitz
Imagine that you and your spouse decided to treat yourselves to a high-end cruise for your fiftieth anniversary. Never having done this before, you are blown away by the luxurious setting and are thoroughly enjoying every moment.
In your information packet, you were informed to dress formally for dinner on the first evening of the cruise, so you put on the best clothing from your closet and make your way to the ballroom.
While eating the main dish, someone on the next table keeled over clutching his heart as he fell. A friend of his immediately stood up and yelled, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Almost immediately, a group of waiters and cruise employees sprung into action. But their response was not what you thought it would be.
The cruise operator quickly walked over to the band leader and told him to raise the volume of the music to drown out the commotion generated by the heart attack. Several waiters surrounded the individual who was calling for the doctor. They admonished him for disturbing the ambiance of the formal dinner and physically removed him from the ballroom. While this was happening, another group of cruise employees carried the stricken man out of the ballroom and into one of the empty conference rooms nearby. Instead of canvassing the ballroom for a doctor, they asked one of their associate chefs who took a CPR class several years ago to assist the patient, who slips into a coma and dies shortly thereafter.
Well; that imaginary story pretty much sums up the horrific tale of Dr. Twerski’s harassment at the hands of morally bankrupt individuals which led to his resignation from a panel being formed to – responsibly and in a Torah-appropriate manner – initiate measures to finally start protecting our precious children from the predators in our community.
Reb Benzion is the guy who was forcibly removed from the ballroom so as not to ruin the party. And the fellow with the heart attack represents the innocent, voiceless children in our community who are victims of abuse and molestation.
Back to the story, if I may. Imagine again that you are the couple celebrating their anniversary on the cruise ship. How comfortable would you be after that episode, seeing firsthand that form ruled over substance? That people who called out for help were silenced. That professionally trained individuals who could have perhaps saved the victim’s life were not asked to help him. What would you think of the cruise operator who made those decisions? Would you continue on that cruise or would you get off at the next stop? How comfortable would you be that you would be treated properly if you had severe chest pains?
I ask you to put yourself in the place of our very street-smart teenagers who have immediate access to all the swirls of information and are drawing their own conclusions. What message are we sending them when we allow hooligans to silence a wonderful individual like Dr. Twerski who has dedicated his life to keeping them safe?
Is it any wonder that so many of our kids are heading for the exits when we show them that their safety is not our paramount concern?