Zipping around his Aventura office on a recent afternoon, Jeffrey Herman doesn't look much like someone who regularly hears real-life horror stories. The young-looking 44-year-old lawyer wears a white Kiss T-shirt with yellow sleeves and answers his cell phone every few seconds. He is simultaneously participating in a conference call and yelling to his assistant about plane tickets to New York.
"At this point, we're nationwide," Herman says. "I'm handling abuse cases from all over the country."
On May 4, Herman sued Rabbi Yehuda Kolko and Yeshiva Torah Temimah, an Orthodox school for about 1000 boys in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. His client is David Framowitz, a 48-year-old living in Israel. Framowitz, who attended the yeshiva in the late Sixties and early Seventies, says he was molested at least fifteen times over three years. Herman alleges a coverup by yeshiva elders.
And on May 19, Herman sued Kolko and the yeshiva on behalf of two anonymous plaintiffs who allege abuse in the late Eighties.
Neither Kolko nor Yeshiva Torah Temimah officials would comment on the case. In May the yeshiva issued a statement denying any coverup.
Since the cases became public mostly in New York newspapers and magazines Herman contends he's been contacted by about 30 people who say they were abused by Kolko. Indeed Herman claims many families of alleged victims reported the abuse to yeshiva leaders and were rebuffed. "It's similar to some of the really horrifying instances of abuse in the Catholic Church, where the victim or the victim's family did report the abuse to higherups and nothing was done," Herman says, sitting at a gleaming conference table in his freshly painted office.
The alleged abuse by Rabbi Kolko is a new twist in a story familiar to anyone who has read a newspaper in the past five years. In Boston, Los Angeles, and even Miami, the Catholic Church has paid out huge settlements to abuse victims who have claimed their tormentors were church officials more concerned with bad publicity than weeding out pedophiles.
As much as any attorney in America, Herman is responsible for bringing these cases to light.
The Ohio-raised lawyer has practiced in Florida since 1985, but his first headlines came in 1997, when he sued Nova Southeastern University, which runs the Ralph J. Baudhuin Oral School, a Davie facility for autistic children. The school never conducted a background check on a volunteer Daniel Patrick Donohue who turned out to be a convicted pedophile. A teacher claims to have seen Donohue molesting one student; it's impossible to tell whether he victimized others because many of the children are unable to speak. Herman successfully sued on behalf of one of the children enrolled at the school, and won a $208,300 settlement. The lawyer is presently representing families of seventeen other students at the Davie institution in a consolidated lawsuit that is pending in Broward Circuit Court.
"That was just such a horrific case," he says. "But for some reason I wanted to keep doing this kind of work. It's corny, but I actually do it for the kids."
Herman, who has four children, insists it's not all about the money (although the new, well-appointed Aventura office of his firm, Herman & Mermelstein, suggests he's doing all right). "I could make money doing other kinds of law and not have to hear these awful stories about adults abusing and destroying the trust these kids have in them," he explains. "Say what you want about attorneys, but for some of these families that have tried to go to the church or the police, I'm the last resort."
In April 2002, Herman sued the Archdiocese of Miami on behalf of the family of a deceased former altar boy, Miguel Chinchilla, whose family claimed he had been molested between 1975 and 1977 by two priests at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables. Rev. Ricardo Castellanos and Rev. Alvaro Guichard, the alleged molesters, denied the accusations. In May 2002, Herman filed suit on behalf of José Currais Jr., who said the pair had molested him during the early Seventies. The lawsuit also alleged Castellanos organized orgies with Currais and other children. Both priests strongly denied the allegations, although the church settled all the lawsuits against the two men in 2004. The amounts ranged from $75,000 to $500,000.
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All told, the church has settled 23 molestation lawsuits with Herman, for a total of $3.4 million.
Framowitz contacted Herman, who is an observant Jew, after the lawyer appeared on The O'Reilly Factor to discuss the Catholic Church's sex-abuse problem. Herman's name and number later showed up on theunorthodoxjew.blogspot.com (UOJ), a Website that hosts lengthy discussions of Orthodox Judaism and rabbinical sex abuse.
The case has generated endless bickering on sites like UOJ and chaptzem.blogspot.com, where some people accuse Framowitz and Herman of bringing unwarranted shame on the Orthodox community. Herman shrugs at critics, like an anonymous poster recently accusing him of being "interested in generating more noise than [truthfulness]."
"So I should care less about little Jewish kids being molested than little Catholic kids?" he asks. "It's nonsense. If the yeshiva had done the right thing when they first learned about this man's behavior, none of this would be happening right now."