A powerful, and we think important, moment played out in Justice Patricia DiMango’s courtroom in Brooklyn Supreme Court this week. It happened at the sentencing Monday of convicted child molester Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Lebovits, who a jury found guilty of eight counts of sexual abuse. The well-known owner of a travel agency in Borough Park, over the course of nine months in 2004-2005, lured a 16-year-old boy into his car and performed sex acts on him. In an emotional statement read in court, the father of the victim spoke heartbreakingly about what his son, now 22, went through.
“I want to look this evil man in his eyes,” the father said of Rabbi Lebovits. “What this man did is not some tale or script in a horror movie. It is a real horror story of a man who lived in our community, was trusted by the children and the people. He went on to ruin so many innocent lives just to serve his own selfish, sick pleasures. [There are currently two other sexual abuse cases pending against Rabbi Lebovits.] I ask you Mordechai Lebovits, where is your soul?”
And then the father turned his attention to the rabbi’s family and supporters. “You,” he said, “are just as guilty as he is because you all knew who he was, what he was doing and how he was destroying so many innocent children for years. You all came to support him, while smirking and laughing at our son as he bravely testified. Our great Sages said that the one who sees someone committing evil and is silent is just as guilty as the evil perpetrator and gets the same punishment from God as the evildoer.”
The haredi community in Brooklyn is in the throes of an agonizing debate about whether sexual abuse against children can be policed inside the community or whether victims should come forward to law enforcement. In fact, there was testimony in the Lebovits case suggesting that the state’s witnesses were tampered with, and that the victim himself was intimidated in shul before making his way to court on Monday. The victim’s father told the court: “There were rabbis who called me from Israel and asked me not to persecute him and just let him off the hook for his family’s sake. I told them that there is nothing in the Bible or the Talmud that tells us that justice should not be served for the sake of the family of the criminal. I ask those who pleaded mercy for this man, ‘Did Mordechai Lebovits ever have mercy on the children he molested? Did he ever ask for their forgiveness for ruining their lives?’” Asked if he wanted to speak at the sentencing, the rabbi said, “No thanks.”
Lending yet more sadness to an already sad case, the judge Monday read from a probation report in which Rabbi Lebovits alleged that he himself was abused by an uncle when he was a boy.
The father ended his statement with two pleas: one to victims to seek justice through law enforcement, and another to the judge to “impose the maximum sentence” as he “imposed maximum suffering on innocent victims.”
Judge DiMango did, sentencing Rabbi Lebovits to 10 2/3 to 32 years. With that stiff sentence, which is reportedly being appealed, she seemed to be sending a message, one that victims of abuse are likely receiving loud and clear this week. The tide may be slowly turning toward victims coming forward to the police. The words of the victim’s father in the Lebovits case, anguished yet full of resolve, and the strong sentence should help swell that tide.
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