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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sam Kellner's Tangled Hasidic Tale of Child Sex Abuse, Extortion and Faith

This is a story about religion, sex abuse, power, extortion, bungled prosecutions and the pitfalls of pursuing justice in an insular Orthodox community where disputes are solved internally and mistrust of outsiders reigns.

It involves a convicted sex offender; a Hasidic multimillionaire oil and diamond dealer; a drug addict; a New York assemblyman; a supporting cast of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, private investigators, victims’ advocates, bloggers and lawyers — including Alan Dershowitz — and a cache of secretly taped conversations.

The story plays out against the backdrop of a bitter 2013 election battle for the post of Brooklyn district attorney in which claims of corruption, connivance and race-baiting abounded.

But it began for me in 2010, in a courtroom in Brooklyn, where Baruch Lebovits, a Boro Park cantor recently convicted on eight counts of child sexual abuse, appeared for sentencing.

On one side of the courtroom sat a phalanx of Lebovits’s black-clad supporters in neat rows. As one of Lebovits’s daughters entered the courtroom, she turned to the mass of advocates occupying the benches opposite and, fixing her red, raw eyes on them, insisted, “My father is innocent.”

The advocates, many themselves victims of other ultra-Orthodox child molesters, were in court that day to show support for the victim and to see if justice would finally be served.

Prosecuting child sex crimes is hard enough in a secular society, but in the ultra-Orthodox world, with its prohibitions against gossip, lashon hara, and ratting out a Jew to the secular authorities, mesirah, it is tortuously difficult.

Parents of ultra-Orthodox victims must get permission from a rabbi before they can report their child’s abuse to the police. Even with permission, they. and their families are often barred from synagogues and schools. They are publicly shamed and denounced, their businesses destroyed, their marriage prospects shattered.

At Lebovits’s sentencing hearing, prosecutor Miss Gregory told the court that on the morning of that very hearing, the victim’s father had been accosted in synagogue, called a traitor and “physically menaced” by a man who threw him out of the synagogue and tried to kick him.

Earlier, the victim told how the horror of being abused, pushed him into drug addiction and petty crime. “Mr. Lebovits showed me no mercy,” the victim told the court. “I know that seeing the man who caused me so much pain being punished will give me hope and strength to rebuild my life.”

Before passing sentence, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Patricia DiMango noted that Lebovits himself had been a victim of abuse. DiMango said that, according to his probation report, Lebovits was molested by an uncle in London when he was 11 and was abused again one year later by two teenage friends.

DiMango said Lebovits and his victim epitomized “the ultimate harm and havoc” of sexual abuse. Then she sentenced Lebovits to between 10 and 32 years in prison.

Although that three-hour court appearance has stuck with me, during the past few years I have begun to have doubts about the Lebovits conviction.

My doubts are focused not on whether Lebovits sexually abused boys, but on whether Lebovits was denied a fair trial.

The seeds of doubt have been planted during numerous off-the-record interviews with people in law enforcement and in the advocacy community, and with lawyers for and relatives of Lebovits. 

They are also based on secretly recorded conversations — some already in the public record, others never publicly released — that appear to undermine the case against Lebovits.

The principal reason for such doubts lies with one man: Sam Kellner.

Kellner was arrested in 2011 on charges of extortion and bribery.

The Brooklyn DA, Charles Hynes, accused Kellner of paying a witness in the Lebovits prosecution $10,000 to falsely testify that he had been abused.

Kellner was also accused of trying to extort the Lebovits family for $400,000 by threatening to bring forward more witnesses against Lebovits unless the family paid up.

At first it seemed bizarre that anyone could think that Lebovits, who earned a living as a travel agent, could afford such sums.

But it turns out that one of his sons, Chaim Lebovits, is an oil and diamond dealer who has spent much of the past decade in West Africa and Israel. (His latest venture, BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, is a biotechnology company that specializes in finding a cure for diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.)
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