NEW YORK - It started as a radio program discussion about a taboo subject: child molestation among members of the insular world of Orthodox Jews.
Since he broached the subject on his radio show this summer, says a state assemblyman, dozens of people have come forward with stories about children being molested in the Orthodox community, which strictly follows Jewish law.
Dov Hikind says as many as four people a day have come to him over the past three months with painful accounts of secrets often kept for decades, accusing more than 60 individuals.
Hikind says he would eventually consider unmasking accused sexual predators but wants to focus now on setting up a broader framework for addressing the issue.
His campaign has set off a firestorm in the Orthodox community, where people are reluctant to involve secular authorities. One rabbi said he got death threats for speaking out.
"In our community, people don't talk about the things that they've come to my office" and revealed, said Hikind, himself an Orthodox Jew.
Among other faiths, the subject has meant turmoil in recent years for the Roman Catholic church. For decades, church leaders often transferred predatory clergy among parishes without telling parents or police. Victims have won millions in settlements from dioceses.
Members of a polygamous offshoot of the Mormon church have been charged with assaulting children in Texas. Children have been removed from the Arkansas compound of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries amid allegations of beatings and sexual abuse.
Hikind said he won't breach victims' trust by disclosing his private exchanges to prosecutors — or to a lawyer who subpoenaed him in a civil case against a school accused of concealing abuse.
However, he has been working on devising mechanisms within the Orthodox world for reporting sex abuse and sharing information on school staffers' previous positions. He aims to present a plan to rabbis this winter.
Studies have found Orthodox Jews account for as much as 10 percent of Jews nationwide, and a far greater share in parts of the New York metro area. Some 37 percent of the more than 516,000 Jews in Brooklyn are Orthodox, according to the UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish social-service group.
Critics have said sex abuse claims are sometimes handled quietly in Orthodox rabbinical courts, rather than being reported to authorities.
However, some sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jewish schools have spilled into the secular legal system in Brooklyn.
In one case, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko was charged with sexually abusing boys at an Orthodox school. He admitted no sexual wrongdoing but pleaded guilty in April to a misdemeanor child endangerment charge. Kolko was sentenced to three years of probation and has been dismissed from the school, said his lawyer, Jeffrey Schwartz. The school's lawyer didn't immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
Six former students are suing the school, saying it covered up Kolko's misdeeds. Their lawyer subpoenaed Hikind this month, seeking to find out whether he learned anything relevant to the case during his impromptu fact-finding.
He said lawyers were assessing how to respond to the subpoena.
Plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Dowd said he was willing to safeguard victims' identities but is determined to pursue whatever information Hikind has.
"I don't question his motivation, but at the same time, I don't accept it as a reason" not to provide information that could expose child molesters, said Dowd, who won $11.4 million in damages last year for two people raped as teenagers by a Catholic youth minister on Long Island.
Hikind said he encourages people who confide in him to talk to the authorities. But none will, he said, for fear of ostracism.
One rabbi and psychologist told Jewish media outlets he was hounded into quitting a task force on child molestation, days after Hikind appointed him to lead it in September; the panel is going on with other members. Another New York rabbi told the Daily News this month that vicious fliers and death-threat calls scared him into shutting down a sex abuse victims' hot line he had set up.
Some victims' advocates see little point in collecting information without bringing in law enforcement.
"The only way things are going to be cleaned up" is with authorities' involvement, said Vicki Polin, the founder of The Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group that works with victims of sexual abuse in Jewish communities.
But others praise Hikind's campaign.
"We can't achieve solutions without the public spotlight," said Elliot Pasik, an Orthodox attorney who represents plaintiffs in rabbi sex-abuse lawsuits unrelated to Kolko.