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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sex-abuse case against rabbi raises larger issues

Six years ago, Levitt pleaded no contest to molesting a boy living in an Orthodox Jewish community in Philadelphia and was later cited for violating probation when he refused treatment at an institute for sexual offenders.

“He basically flunked the sex offender course there because he refused to accept responsibility for what he did,’’ said Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney James Berardinelli, who prosecuted the case.

Activists seeking to raise awareness about sexual abuse by rabbis say the Levitt case is an opportunity for Jewish leaders to continue efforts to overcome the religious obstacles that have discouraged some victims from reporting abuse to police.

The obstacles include traditional Jewish rules, adhered to in some pockets of the Orthodox world, such as a prohibition against “chillul Hashem,’’ bringing shame on God’s name, and against “mesirah,’’ informing on fellow believers to secular authorities.

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children,’’ said strict adherence to those practices can create an environment where pedophiles flourish.

“If other adults are willing to keep their secrets, they can have multiple victims,’’ she said. “It’s horrifying.’’

Blau, who began his career as a teacher at Maimonides, in the 1960s, said the concept of mesirah is rooted in the history of the Jewish people, who were often persecuted while living in societies that officially sanctioned anti-Semitism. But he also said that the use of chillul Hashem and mesirah as reasons to avoid reporting sexual abuse by rabbis “is a misapplication of those laws,’’ an opinion underscored by the Rabbinical Council of America in a resolution approved at its convention earlier this year.

Researchers concerned about sexual abuse by rabbis attribute a gradual change in attitudes among orthodox Jews to websites and blogs where victims have felt free to discuss their abuse anonymously. They also cite the example of clergy abuse victims in the Catholic Church, who began speaking out in large numbers after the 2002 scandal in the Boston Archdiocese.

“Victims in Jewish communities were fortified by the experience of Catholics who have blazed a trail for them,’’ said Amy Neustein, editor of the book, “Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals.’’

The case against Levitt began unfolding when Brecher and a New York man decided to approach law enforcement authorities in Boston. Brecher, 46, now a Maryland resident, said Levitt sexually abused him while he was a patient at Children’s Hospital recovering from a school accident.

The second man, a 46-year-old New Yorker who asked that his name be withheld, said Levitt molested him on three occasions in the shower area of his Brighton home during a three-night visit while his parents were on vacation. The Globe does not publish the names of alleged sexual abuse victims who wish to remain anonymous.

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