NEW YORK – Prosecutors, counselors and religious leaders on Wednesday announced a program to combat sexual abuse among members of the insular world of Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jews — a problem one lawmaker says extends beyond New York.
The centerpiece of the outreach program, announced by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and Jewish community leaders, is a hot line abuse victims can call and speak to a "culturally sensitive" social worker.
The program will focus on child sex abuse. It was established partly in response to a discussion on State Assemblyman Dov Hikind's radio show in the summer of 2008.
The show prompted dozens of listeners to come forward with stories of children being molested. Hikind has said that as many as four people a day over a three-month period last year approached him with accounts of secrets often kept for decades, allegations he shared with prosecutors.
He believes the problem extends beyond Brooklyn to other insular communities in other states.
Called Kol Tzedek, which means voice of justice in Hebrew, the outreach program will allow callers to remain anonymous until they're ready to identify themselves and meet with a social worker and prosecutors who specialize in sex crimes. The social worker who will run the program has worked with the Orthodox community on domestic violence and drug use, the prosecutor's office said.
"Some people will go to jail," Hynes said of suspected abusers. "Some people will get therapy. Some people will get a combination of jail and therapy."
Currently, the DA's office is prosecuting 16 suspected felony cases of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the district attorney's sex crimes bureau. It's also prosecuting three misdemeanor cases, she said.
All the cases' alleged victims are children or were children when the alleged abuse occurred, Jaus said.
"Over the years we've had a few indictments" of sex abuse suspects from the Orthodox Jewish community, Jaus said. The current 19 cases are an "indication of how there's been a change in the community," she said.
Hikind said rabbis are telling accusers, more than ever before, to go to the authorities.
Prosecutors have blamed stigma, shame and cultural isolation for victims' reluctance to come forward. Hikind said victims also fear that congregations will judge them and that revelations will hurt their families, particularly children's future marriage prospects.
"These are the things we're trying to break down," said Hikind, who has represented parts of Brooklyn for 27 years.
The new team also will visit schools and synagogues, where rabbis and other leaders will be asked to encourage victims to report abuse.
Studies have found Orthodox Jews account for as much as 10 percent of Jews nationwide, and a far greater share in parts of the New York metro area. Some 37 percent of the more than 516,000 Jews in Brooklyn are Orthodox, according to the UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish social-service group.
Critics have said sex abuse claims are sometimes handled quietly in Orthodox rabbinical courts, rather than being reported to authorities.
However, some sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jewish schools have spilled into the secular legal system in Brooklyn.
In one case, a rabbi was charged with sexually abusing boys at an Orthodox school. He admitted no sexual wrongdoing but pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a misdemeanor child endangerment charge, was sentenced to three years of probation and was dismissed from the school.
Last month, a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted an ultra-Orthodox rabbi of molesting his now-adult daughter through much of her childhood. He claimed he was being falsely accused by a daughter who rebelled against a strict upbringing.
Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, applauded the district attorney for "tackling a problem that has been below the radar until now."
"Until today, a sexual predator had a hiding place in the Orthodox Jewish community, while their victims were forced to live in silence," Hecht said in a statement. "We're turning the corner on sexual abuse and realizing that we are not immune to these issues."
But some who attended Wednesday's announcement were more cautiously optimistic. One of them was David Mandel, the chief executive of Ohel Children's Home and Family Services, one of the organization working with Brooklyn prosecutors.
"It's another step," Mandel said.