Landmark victory in sex abuse cases

Landmark victory in sex abuse cases

The financial settlement by a Brooklyn yeshiva of two sexual abuse cases marks an important milestone in the battle to expose such assaults and encourage victims to come forward despite strong social pressures to remain silent.

Yeshiva Torah Temimah agreed in the fall of 2014 to pay $2.1 million to two former students who accused Rabbi Joel (Yehuda) Kolko, 70, of molesting them when they were six years old, according to a recent New York Post story. The settlement became public knowledge when papers filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court indicated that the yeshiva had defaulted on its schedule of payments. The lawsuits were filed in 2006 and 2007. 

Numerous allegations of sex abuse had been made against Kolko, dating back some 25 years. In 2012, in a deal with Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney at the time, Kolko pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of child endangerment but did not receive a jail term and was not required to register as a sex offender. 

The two separate lawsuits that came to light last week claim that Rabbi Lipa Margulies, the head of the yeshiva, was aware of allegations for more than two decades that Kolko sat boys on his lap and touched their private parts, but kept him on as an elementary school teacher. According to the lawsuits, yeshiva officials threatened the families of victims to ensure their silence.

Advocates in the Jewish community for victims of sex abuse said this is the first time a local yeshiva agreed to financially compensate victims. Ben Hirsch, a spokesperson for Survivors of Justice, described this as “a game changer in that it demonstrates that yeshivas can be made to compensate victims of child abuse.”

“While no amount of money can undo the trauma these victims were subjected to by Kolko and Yeshiva Torah Temimah,” he said, “it is encouraging to see justice served.”

He and other advocates decried New York state’s statute of limitations law on abuse cases as archaic and cruel in that victims can only sue predators before they reach the age of 23, and institutions by the age of 21. Older victims have no recourse under the law. 

Hirsch noted that four of Kolko’s alleged victims charged him with molestation but filed too late, with one victim missing the deadline by two weeks. Efforts in the legislature have been unsuccessful in extending the statute of limitations. Opponents, including the Catholic Church and Agudath Israel of America, argue that such an extension could result in bankrupting schools for past crimes. 

The law needs to change, particularly in light of numerous psychological studies indicating that many victims are unable to deal with the trauma and shame of abuse for decades. New York could look to New Jersey as a model; here, the statute of limitations is suspended if the victim fails either to realize what happened or to recognize an incident’s continued negative impact on the victim’s life.

It is time to bring these cases out of the shadows; perhaps the financial incentive illustrated in the Torah Temimah case will help convince more victims to step up. 

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