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TOMS RIVER, N.J. – With other accusers stepping forward, a former yeshiva teacher changed pleas Monday in the middle of his trial, admitting he sexually abused a boy he met while working as a camp counselor.
Rabbi Yoself Kolko, 36, shifted uncomfortably on the stand as he pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault, attempted aggravated sex assault, sexual assault and child endangerment. The abuse occurred from August 2008 to February 2009. It ranged from fondling to oral sex and stopped when the boy told his father, who confronted Kolko.
The change in plea came after the prosecutor's office was contacted Friday by a representative for a woman who said she had been a victim of Kolko and a man who said he had a victim, Senior Assistant Prosecutor Laura Pierro said.
The case may be a watershed for the prosecutor's office and the Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, which has in the past been reluctant to bring criminal matters to civil authorities, preferring instead to handle them through rabbinical courts and senior rabbis.
"I'm hoping that it's going to open the doors" to others in the community cooperating with authorities, Pierro said in an interview after the plea. "We broke ground with this case."
Prosecutors said they would not pursue the other two cases.
Kolko's bail was revoked, and he was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation before sentencing.
His attorney, Michael Bachner, said Kolko was "extremely remorseful," apologizes to the victim and hopes after treatment "to return to society as a benefit to it."
The plea came after only three of the prosecution's eight witnesses testified. The senior rabbi the father approached was due to testify, as were other members of the insular community who were expected to shed light on internal workings of Lakewood's Orthodox population and how such allegations were handled inside it.
When Judge Francis R. Hodgson asked Kolko if he had received any promises or was threatened or coerced in exchange for his plea, Kolko answered softly that there were things that were "not part of the court system."
Bachner would not comment on Kolko's statement.
The victim's father had initially wanted the case handled within Lakewood's Orthodox community, asking a senior rabbi to help ensure that Kolko stay away from children and go to therapy. In mid-2009, the father decided to take the case to authorities.
The Associated Press generally does not identify accusers in sex-crime cases and is not naming the father to protect the son's identity.
Testifying last week, the father said he went to prosecutors because he felt the case was not being handled appropriately. Kolko was still teaching and planning to work at the summer camp where he met the boy.
"I was more concerned that he was still at his jobs," the father said Thursday. "And I felt that children are being endangered."
The father acknowledged it is not common for members of the Orthodox community to take cases like this to law enforcement.
Prosecutors had said the boy's family was ostracized by the community for pursuing the case in state court. The boy's father, a prominent rabbi, lost his job and the family moved to Michigan.
"There certainly were members of the community who remain outspoken against what the father did on behalf of his son," Pierro said. "I can tell you that there are many more whom are perhaps silently or not as openly are swelled with pride that he took this rather historic step."
The boy, who was 11 and 12 when the abuse took place, testified last week, describing a series of encounters with the rabbi, including molestation and oral sex.
The boy, now 16, said he was uncomfortable but wanted to remain close to Kolko because they were friends and the boy had no other companions in school.
Pierro commended the boy's and his father's bravery.
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said that in "securing justice for the victim," prosecutors "have proven our ability to successfully intercede on their community's behalf, affording them the same protections under the law we so tirelessly apply to all Ocean County's citizens."
"We will make every effort to assure this is a major step toward a continuing relationship with Ocean County's religious communities," he said.
Kolko faced a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison and a $650,000 fine, but the judge said he will likely cap one count at 15 years and run sentences on any other counts concurrently.