A prominent ultra-Orthodox Jewish school has reached secret settlements worth $2.1 million with two former students who accused their teacher of molesting them, the New York Post reports. The students were two of several who have accused the man, Rabbi Joel "Yehuda" Kolko, of sexually abusing them, dating back to the 1970s. Experts the tabloid consulted said that this is the first known settlement to come out of child molestation cases in the city's Haredi Jewish enclaves.
The settlements came to light because the school, Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Kensington, allegedly failed to pay $1 million of the total promised, leading the alleged victims to sue.
The accusers' lawsuits claimed that the yeshiva has received credible allegations that Kolko was molesting students going back 25 years, but allowed him to retain his role as an elementary school teacher and failed to report the allegations to the police. Rabbis at the school investigated claims of Kolko's abuse in 1985 and found him innocent, according to a decision obtained by the blog Failed Messiah. In addition to five who sued, at least four other alleged victims have come forward since 2005, The Jewish Week reported, but their cases were beyond the statute of limitations for bringing civil or criminal suits. A lawyer for victims told New York magazine that as many as 20 people had contacted him saying Kolko had abused them.
Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes reached a sweetheart plea deal with Kolko in 2012 related to the accusations of two alleged victims. The deal allowed Kolko to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of child endangerment and avoid jail time. Hynes's office claimed that the parents wouldn't allow the boys to testify, but the parents said that was a lie, and that they were shocked by the deal.
Hynes's office also dismissed claims of witness tampering by the yeshiva and its supporters, including threatening phone calls the father of an alleged victim said traced back to the school, and a lawyer for the school allegedly contacting the victim's therapist and asking the therapist to pressure the family. The lawyer denied the claim, which the therapist memorialized in a sworn affidavit.
The settlements are a positive step for victims in ultra-Orthodox communities, where going to the secular authorities with claims against fellow Jews can be considered sinful, according to one authority on the subject.
"If word gets out, other schools will think twice if they hear about abuse," Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser to Yeshiva University and victim rights advocate, told the Post.
Victims seeking recourse in the criminal justice system currently must do so before the age of 23, or 21 if implicating an institution, according to New York's statute of limitations. A bill currently before the state legislature seeks to extend the statute.
Ben Hirsch, a spokesman for the sexual abuse victims advocacy group Survivors For Justice said in a statement, "There is still time for victims under the age of 23 to step forward and file criminal complaints against Rabbi Kolko and civil lawsuits against Torah Temimah. We encourage victims to report these crimes to the police. Without aggressive action, child molesters and those who cover up for them will continue destroying innocent lives."
A woman who answered the phone at the law office for the yeshiva's lawyer, Avi Moskowitz, said he is not available this week.