child abuse - Michal Fattal - October 2 2011
An empty playground. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Daniel Bar-On
One of the accused, B. He denied all charges of sexual assault against the children. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On
The Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot. According to parents, a pedophile ring operated here for many years with at least 10 child molesters taking part. Photo by Daniel Bar-On

One night several weeks ago, an unusual sight could be seen in a small park in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood. The local residents - Haredi yet heterogeneous - attacked a well kept public park and destroyed it to its core. Earlier that evening, the police had arrested the man who created the park and devoted his time to sports activities in it, and now the parents were taking out their anger on his creation. They couldn't tolerate the discovery that this man, S., a very familiar figure in the neighborhood and city, is suspected of belonging to a network of pedophiles - they even claim he is the brains behind it - which operated unimpeded in the small neighborhood. This network of pedophiles, claim the parents, included no fewer than 10 molesters and operated for years, in houses, niches and parks. Many dozens of children - apparently over 100 - from the neighborhood and elsewhere fell victims to it.

The story of the pedophile network in Nahlaot exploded in August, with the arrest of four suspects. One of them had already been arrested several months earlier and subsequently released. S., who was arrested two weeks ago, was the fifth suspect, and the parents hoped that this was the start of a solution to the major crisis they had experienced. But this month, attorney Shlomit Ben-Yitzhak, of the Jerusalem District Prosecutors' Office, submitted indictments in the affair, and the parents discovered that their hopes had been dashed: Indictments were submitted only against two of those involved - B. and P. And although the indictments describe sodomy, indecent assaults and rape, they refer to only five children. Even the most skeptical of those involved in the investigation and in the welfare agencies admit that that number is only a small percentage of the attacks. The police themselves have interrogated over 40 children.

The possibility of serving indictments against two additional suspects is still under consideration, but they are currently free. But what disappointed the parents most - and what motivated them to think that the arrests did not, in the final analysis, herald the hoped-for solution - was the release of S. Called "the handler" by H., one of the parents, S. was released without charge after a week and began walking around the neighborhood again. Along with him, the small community's nightmare returned in full force.

Someone close to the investigation claims that the reason for the huge gap between the parents' stories and the harsh testimony on the one hand, and the legal outcome on the other, is the activity of the parents themselves. The parents, he says, unwittingly interfered with the investigation process. The conversations and "investigations" that they conducted with their own children undermined the reliability of the stories the children then told the juvenile investigators. There are parents who even showed their children pictures of the suspects so the children could identify them, an activity that invalidated their testimony. For their part, the parents stress the fact that they have cooperated with the authorities from the beginning. Many of them are ultra-Orthodox, but as opposed to the usual stereotype of this religious community, they did not hide anything, described what their children had told them without mincing words, and encouraged their children to talk. Only afterward, they say, did they discover that the problem was not a lack of cooperation, but on the contrary - their great desire to eliminate the problem.

The interrogation texts, which are being revealed here for the first time, indicate the difficulties in getting children involved in the criminal evidence system - difficulties that are common to all the cases that center around children. Alongside that, there is also an indication of the unique difficulty in this particular case, stemming from its dimensions and the place where it occurred.

Open, trusting neighborhood

The knowledge that there was a group of pedophiles among them was a tremendous blow to local residents. In the small neighborhood, which is known for its pluralism and openness, Yiddish-speaking Haredim, American skullcap wearers, Bratslav Hasidim and even secular people live in coexistence and with mutual respect. They all testify that, before the incident, this was an open, trusting neighborhood. "This is a neighborhood with a naivety you won't find anywhere in the 21st century. And suddenly they find themselves talking about rape and sodomy. Those are words that have never been heard in this place," says one of the residents.

G. and R., a Haredi couple who live in the neighborhood, are just two direct victims of the affair. A few years ago, they began to sense that something was wrong with their children as they started suffering from various behavioral problems. G. and R. didn't hesitate. They turned to family therapists and child psychologists in order to discover the problem. "They told us that we lacked confidence, that the children were third-generation Holocaust survivors. They said that it was my husband's fault, and they said that it was my fault," recalls R.

It was only 10 months ago that they discovered the real reason. A former neighbor called and told them that her son had returned home with black and blue marks on his penis. The neighbor also mentioned B., the first suspect in the case and one of the two who were later served an indictment.

"And then I suddenly understood," says R. "We started asking the children. One of them replied: 'He didn't do bad things, he only gave punishments.' When I asked him to explain, he described acts of sodomy, indecent assault and rape. This is a child of four, he has no way of inventing it, he has no place from which to imagine it."

B. lives very near the home of G. and R. and was known in the neighborhood as being feeble-minded. "The absurd thing is that I was his defender in the neighborhood," says G. "When my son raised accusations against him, I thought it was my job to feel sorry for him and to be angry with my son, and that only made it harder for him. Instead of his parents protecting him, they supported his greatest enemy."

The parents estimate that three of their children fell victim to B.'s acts. All three are suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms and are receiving psychological therapy.

Since they learned about the attack, the parents are discovering additional dimensions of abuse, additional clues about the nightmarish world in which their children lived. "My son has a fire phobia, he doesn't allow me to light the Shabbat candles and I have to remove him from the room," says R. Eventually the child told his parents that B. had once caught him playing with a lighter and punished him with harsh physical and sexual violence. "He told him: 'I'm doing this to you so you'll know not to touch fire,'" says G.

In another case, the parents claim they discovered that B. had made a rule. Whenever their mother went out to the supermarket, the children had to come to his home for a series of 'punishments'. "One time the children begged me to take them along but I refused, because the therapists said that I wasn't strict enough. When I returned I saw the three of them screaming. I didn't understand what had happened."

The parents submitted a complaint to the police as soon as the acts were discovered. The subsequent investigation led in the end to the serving of an initial indictment against B.

At that point, nobody imagined there was more than one molester and more than a few children. But as time passed, more and more children began to talk. They described in detail acts of rape and sodomy, watching pornographic films, harsh physical punishments for "disobedience," and watching the rape or abuse of another child. The parents claim that almost every child who lived there, or even came for a visit, was a target of abuse. "We noticed that we were a kind of bacterium, that everyone who came was infected. A niece came for Shabbat and it turned out that she had been exposed to pornographic films," says G.

"[Previously] we already had cases of molesting 70 or 80 children, but I've been in the profession for 30 years and I've never seen such brutality. It's heartrending," says Debbie Gross, director of the Crisis Center for Religious Women that is helping the families.

Altea Steinherz, a trauma specialist who is helping the parents on a volunteer basis, has difficulty holding back tears when she describes one of the stories she heard, about a brother who was forced to watch his sister being raped. "Anyone who has heard this story knows that it was true. I didn't sleep for an entire week because of that story."

How is it possible that in such a small neighborhood, in a radius of about 50 meters, there are presumably no fewer than four men who spend most of their time hunting down children, together or alone, abusing them and enlisting additional adults for group sexual attacks?

The residents explain that, among the residents, there are many lonely adults, some of them with special needs. The residents claim S., the leader of the gang, worked among them as a recruiter. "These people are unemployed and nobody pays attention to them, they're looking for some excitement and someone recruits them," claims one of the parents.

'A toy gun'

The investigation of M., whose testimony is the basis for the indictment against B., lasted for several hours. The texts reveal an intelligent boy whose descriptions are coherent. First the investigator ensures that he distinguishes between fact and fiction. "I want [you] to tell me ... only the true things that happened, and I want to be sure that you know what it means to say something true and something untrue," he tells the child. "If I say, for example, that you're standing now, would that be true or untrue?"

M.: "Untrue, I'm sitting."

"So, I see that you know what it means to say something true and something untrue. Now, if I ask you something you don't know, then say you don't know - all right?"

Only after these preliminaries does the interrogator get down to work. He shows M. the picture of the suspect, and the child immediately answers: "I played with him in the mikveh [ritual bath] and I was in his house many times - we were groups that came to him. We knocked on the door and he opened it. We had to walk around outside his house so that they wouldn't hear outside when he was hitting ... He showed us films . He told us not to tell our parents, and if someone told, he would hit him with a toy gun and it hurt."

The gun that M. is talking about recurs repeatedly in the children's descriptions of B.'s reign of terror. The parents say he would threaten to shoot the children, murder their younger siblings or burn their houses down.

In his interrogation, B. denies the acts that the children attributed to him. Although he confirmed that he "brought children home, I played checkers with them, and there are some ... with whom I played 'balancing'." But he denied implicitly that he had attacked them sexually.

B's attorney, Roy Politi, responds: "This story is a horrifying example of turning a person whose only crime is a personality disorder that dooms him to live on the margins of society, into a monster who can be victimized. For several weeks, public hysteria in the accused's neighborhood gave rise to a process that should become a subject for a sociological study. In the course of it, rumors turned into complaints, and a story was consolidated to the effect that over 50 children had been raped by the accused and others on a daily basis for years, were forced to participate in mass orgies and suffered exceptional sexual abuse. All that without anyone noticing their strange disappearance for hours at a time, injuries on their bodies or other indications. The accused denies the accusations against him and will prove his complete innocence in the courtroom."

A thin line

M.'s testimony became the basis of the indictment after his interrogator decided that he was "consistent and tries to stick to the relevant facts that he draws from his memory ... I believe that he can give testimony in court." But that was not the situation in many other cases. In those cases, the interrogators decided that, in light of the parents' involvement, "It's impossible to determine reliable findings." This decision, say those familiar with the case, does not mean that a child is lying, but that it is impossible to determine whether what he is saying is entirely correct. But the result is the same: Most of the suspects were released to their homes, to the horror of the parents.

People in the legal system and professionals involved in the case actually agree that, even if there are exaggerations in the children's stories, the core is true. Debbie Gross states she has no doubts over the verisimilitude of most of the children's stories. "I don't think that a child is capable of inventing such stories," she says. "You can't invent such a thing even when you're exposed to newspapers, the Internet and television. And a Haredi child certainly can't invent such stories."

"I'm sure that it's not an invention, there's a very large mass of children who were harmed," said someone who is very close to the investigation, but who has some reservations. "But when a child says that he was hurt and says that it happened only once, and then goes back and says that it happened three times because his mother reminded him, that's a problem. We have a child who told a very serious story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, but in the end it turned out that his parents had shown him the picture of the suspect, and that invalidated the entire testimony. We are beginning to understand that the parents caused damage. The knowledge that there may be pedophiles walking around free outside certainly makes people feel terrible. But there is definitely also another possibility - that not everything is true. And it's very difficult to sort what's true from what may not be true."

One of the issues that bothered the police - and also bothers Politi - was the fact that most of the children began reporting what happened to them at exactly the same time. The children and their parents were quizzed on this during the interrogations, and one of the neighborhood residents was even interrogated under caution for interfering with the investigation process.

The parents, for their part, admit that they may be mistaken, but they point an accusing finger at the police. "We're new at this. They should have told us what to do and what not to do," says one resident. The parents also point to problems in the police investigation. Among other things, the time that passed until the suspects' homes were searched, which enabled them to remove evidence. "I understand the problem with the children's testimony, but why wasn't there initiative on the part of the police?" asks one resident. Now, in light of the meager indictments, say the parents, they won't hasten to turn to the police again with additional names.

"They murdered their souls. We, the men, are still living somehow, but our wives aren't living. They're in an ongoing trauma," says G. And H., who says that five of his children were caught in the net, adds: "Among the five, you can sense it with three of them. But the most frightening are the two on which you can't see anything. You don't know when it will come out. With God's help it will pass, but it's very frightening. We won't be calm until we accompany these children to the chuppah and they have their first child. Then we can say that we've forgotten about it."

But it's not just the parents who feel they are standing on shaky ground. The entire neighborhood has changed. "Once we were known as an open neighborhood, now everything has disappeared. Today, when a stranger shows up in the synagogue, the gabbai [sexton] tells him not to come again. That's something that never happened before," says a neighborhood resident. H. points to the playground and public spaces that have emptied of children as a result of the affair. "The yards were bustling, today it's quiet. I have nine children and the door to the house is locked, nobody leaves." Gross understands them perfectly. "This is a simple, naive community that has been hit by a tsunami and they simply didn't know what to do with it. It's a catastrophic blow," she says.

The community leaders are actually demonstrating an ability to cope. They turned to a lawyer to try to change the mind of the Prosecutors' Office regarding the additional suspects. At the same time they started a fund, collected donations and have started to pay for intensive individual and group therapy, for the children and the families.

On the advice of the psychologists who are treating the neighborhood children, an unusual sight was seen there about two months ago: At 9:30 P.M., when the police arrived at P.'s house, dozens of parents and children were waiting for them on the balconies and at the windows, in order to see them raiding the house, arresting its tenants and confiscating equipment. The psychologists thought that the sight of the arrest would reinforce the children's confidence. "After he was arrested there was a festive atmosphere here," says one of the neighbors.

Now, say the parents of the children who were molested, one thing scares them more than anything else: The moment when their children discover that the suspects are not in prison, as the children were promised.