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Ultra-Orthodox Jews coming forward with abuse allegations

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 16, 2009 | 12:12 pm

Over at GetReligion, I recently highlighted the excellent work of Paul Vitello of The New York Times, who does a wonderful job explaining matters of interest in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. Vitello kept it coming this week with a story about how, for the first time in decades, ultra-Orthodox Jews are finally coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse. Without rabbinic approval, they are taking their complaints straight to District Attorney Charles J. Hynes:

Members of this close-knit community, who refer to themselves as the “haredim,” meaning those who fear God, reject modern secular culture and keep strict control over what they consider internal affairs. For centuries, disputes involving children, marriage and business have been decided by rabbinical courts called beth dins, which do not report their findings to the secular authorities, even when they judge someone guilty. Taboos codified long ago during times of persecution discourage community members from informing on other Jews; violations can result in ostracism.

Now, a growing number of haredi Jews in Brooklyn say they do not think they can get justice from the rabbinical courts, which in several high-profile cases have exonerated people who were later criminally convicted of child abuse. And although some advocates for victims contend that the district attorney has been too accommodating of the rabbinical hierarchy — a charge that Mr. Hynes denies — more families are turning to his office for help.

Prosecutors say that since last year 40 minors have agreed to testify about abuse in court, if necessary. And Mr. Hynes’s office has been asked for advice by prosecutors with jurisdictions that include other large haredi enclaves in the Northeast.

“What we have witnessed in the past year is completely unprecedented,” said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the Brooklyn district attorney’s sex crimes bureau. “This would be inconceivable just a few years ago.”

Children in haredi families are no more or less likely to suffer sexual abuse than others, according to several recent studies. But Ben Hirsch, founder of Survivors for Justice, a New York group whose members include haredi Jews molested as children in communities nationwide, said the clandestine handling of molestation cases had kept leaders from dealing with the problem and made it easier for predators.

Mr. Hirsch credits the Jewish press, therapists and rabbis in the haredi population itself, and organizations like his, with bringing the issue to light. Jewish blogs like FailedMessiah.com and theunorthodoxjew.blogspot.com, he said, have also been “a major catalyst,” giving abuse victims their first opportunity to vent and connect without fear of being identified.

“People are rising up,” he said.

Yes, yes they are.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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