Talmudic scholar rejects abuse case plea bargain Fall trial date set

new charges likely

June 08, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

A custody battle that has aroused passions in Orthodox Jewish communities from Northwest Baltimore to Jerusalem took yet another turn yesterday when a self-described religious scholar charged with molesting his children rejected a plea bargain that would have allowed him to avoid jail.

"I have nothing to hide," Aron Goldberger said after turning down an offer that the presiding judge described as one step from an outright dismissal of kidnapping and child abuse charges. A Sept. 13 trial date in Baltimore Circuit Court was set, and the prosecutor promptly said he would likely file additional abuse charges against Mr. Goldberger.

The charges stem from a husband-wife battle being played out in Maryland courtrooms but being followed by Jewish leaders in three states as well as England and Israel.

Allegations of child-snatching and molestation are not unheard of in custody fights. But as Michael Rottenberg, a board member of a Lakewood, N.J., rabbinical college and one of Mr. Goldberger's key supporters, noted yesterday, they are almost unheard of in an Orthodox Jewish society that prefers to mediate its disputes internally and not in the secular courts.

Also yesterday, Mr. Goldberger's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Patrick O'Guinn, filed a motion to allow into evidence polygraph test results showing Mr. Goldberger was truthful when he denied sexually abusing any of his sons.

Yesterday's actions came 10 days after a state Special Appeals Court affirmed a Circuit Court order granting the couple a divorce and giving custody of their six children to Esther Goldberger.

In September 1992, Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti had ordered Mr. Goldberger to pay more than $4,000 a month in child support. In the May 28 opinion, the Court of Special Appeals overturned the support order, ruling that Judge Angeletti erred in calculating support payments based on the amount Mr. Goldberger was able to raise for his legal battles.

Mr. Goldberger has explained his never having held a paying job by saying his marriage contract called for his family to be supported by his in-laws and other members of the community while he was a full-time Talmudic scholar.

In ordering the Circuit Court to determine a new amount of support, the Appeals Court agreed Mr. Goldberger had "voluntarily impoverished" himself despite his obligation to financially support his children.

The opinion quoted from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," saying the fictional lead character Teveya recognizes that a life of study is a luxury when he sings, "If I were a rich man, . . . Wouldn't have to work hard, . . . I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day."

Mr. Goldberger, 33, had been scheduled to stand trial for kidnapping and child abuse last week, but lawyers reported they were close to reaching a plea agreement.

To an assault charge Mr. Goldberger would be allowed to enter an "Alford" plea, in which a defendant acknowledges the existence of sufficient evidence to convict and pleads guilty but is allowed to maintain his innocence.

In return, he would have received probation before judgment, meaning he would have no criminal record if he successfully completed three years of probation, and other charges would have been dropped.

Given the weekend to ponder the offer, Mr. Goldberger turned it down.

Afterward, prosecutor William Guiffre testily accused Mr. Goldberger of "playing games," an accusation seconded by Susan Carol Elgin, lawyer for Esther Goldberger.

Ms. Elgin said the offer had the endorsement of Mr. Goldberger's former wife. "As long as the children are protected, she has no desire to see him in jail," Ms. Elgin said. "We would like to see him out, employed, furnishing some financial assistance to the children."

Ms. Elgin said Mrs. Goldberger and the children live in Baltimore and receive public assistance.

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