A spotlight on sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish world

When the Roman Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis erupted in 2002, the focus was on bishops like Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston who allowed predator priests to continue to serve in parishes.

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness — thanks largely to the Jewish press — of sexual abuse within the world of Orthodox Judaism. But the problem has gotten only sporadic attention, in part, because the Orthodox Jewish community is so very different from the Catholic world.

Not only do you not have clear lines of authority. Unless you’re an insider — an Orthodox Jew — you are not likely to have any sense whatsoever of who is who and which rabbis have authority over which sects.

The very term “Orthodox Judaism” covers very different groups — from “modern” Orthodox Jews to ultra-Orthodox Jews to Hasidic Jews. And the lines are often blurred between the groups.

The kinds of people who usually help expose a problem like child molestation — the media, watchdog groups, public advocates — are largely locked out of the Orthodox world. By and large, the Orthodox community does not like its problems to leave the gates. And most outsiders, even if you want to begin to understand things inside, have no idea where to begin.

The Jewish press has exposed sexual abuse one rabbi at a time, one case at a time.

And this is why Assemblyman Dov Hikind has become such an interesting and controversial figure.

Hikind is an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn who serves an Assembly district that includes Borough Park and is home to many Orthodox Jews. He has been a public voice for Orthodox Jews on many issues, opposing gay marriage and protesting Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” among other things.

He also has a Saturday night radio show on WMCA, 570 AM.

During the summer, Hikind talked about sexual abuse on his radio show. Since then, he says that hundreds of people have contacted him with accusations against more than 60 individuals.

Hikind appointed a task force to study the issue, but the chairman resigned after facing harsh criticism from within the Orthodox world.

Now there is tremendous interest in the information that Hikind possesses and what he may do with it.

According to an AP story on Hikind:

*****

Hikind said he won’t breach victims’ trust by disclosing his private exchanges to prosecutors — or to a lawyer who subpoenaed him in a civil case against a school accused of concealing abuse.

However, he has been working on devising mechanisms within the Orthodox world for reporting sex abuse and sharing information on school staffers’ previous positions. He aims to present a plan to rabbis this winter.

*****

One lawyer who has represented sex-abuse victims told the AP: “I don’t question his motivation, but at the same time, I don’t accept it as a reason” not to provide information that could expose child molesters.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University and an expert on sex-abuse law, writes that Hikind’s conduct is “infuriating:” “In the name of protecting victims, a state assemblyman is shielding people accused of committing the most heinous crimes imaginable.”

She says the Brooklyn DA should convene a grand jury to investigate abuse in the Orthodox community, just at the Philadelphia DA did on the Catholic mess there.

This is not going away.