By Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
December 13, 2011
The recently released news that the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office has arrested 85 members of Brooklyn haredi communities on sex abuse charges is being hailed in some quarters, but it has also led to many questions about the arrests themselves — including the lack of public identification of those charged and convicted, as well as the nature of the charges and their dispositions.
News of the arrests also has some wondering whether the DA's office is cracking down on the kind of communal intimidation its own Orthodox liaison to the community claims keeps families from pressing charges, even after an alleged pedophile is reported or an arrest is made.
According to a report in the New York Post, the DA has been involved in the arrests of 85 alleged predators (with a total of 117 victims) since January 2009. A spokesman for Charles Hynes' office told The Jewish Week that all of these arrests have come through the Kol Tzedek Program, a confidential hotline established by the DA in 2009 to encourage ultra-Orthodox victims of abuse to report these crimes to the secular authorities.
The Post story noted that of the 85 cases, 47 are still pending and 38 have been closed. It went on to elaborate that while 14 of the 38 closed cases resulted in jail time for the perpetrators, in the remaining 24 closed cases, the defendants "got probation, pleaded to minor charges, or saw their cases dismissed — often because victims or their parents backed out under community pressure."
Indeed, according to Henna White, Hynes' liaison to the Orthodox community, "We have victims who back out. Somebody who was very interested in going ahead and working with us, suddenly they stop calling back — we can't reach them," she told The Post. "What we believe is they're getting pressured."
A Jewish Week story last week on the abuse situation in Lakewood, N.J., described in detail the harassment and attempts at intimidation suffered by one family who reported alleged abuse of their son in that community.
While a spokesman for Hynes' office provided The Jewish Week with information about the charges and sentences related to the 14 cases in which defendants received jail time, he declined to provide their names or case numbers. In the 24 cases involving probation, pleadings to lesser charges or dismissals, the spokesman declined to provide any information at all.
When asked why the DA's office does not publicize the names of convicted ultra-Orthodox sex abusers, the spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, told The Jewish Week that "The Kol Tzedek Program is designed to encourage victims of sexual assault in the ultra-Orthodox community to come forward and report their abuse. Under the Civil Right Law of New York State, we cannot release the names of any victim of sexual assault or any information that would tend to identify them."
This statement has confounded some advocates and observers who question why revealing the name of a convicted sex offender would identify the name of a victim. It is of particular concern because most such cases — including the majority of Hynes' 14 that resulted in jail time — require the convicted offender to register on a public sex offender list upon release from prison.
"The government has not adequately explained why publicly disclosing the names of convicted sex offenders alone would likely reveal the identities of victims of such crimes," said Itai Maytal, a media attorney specializing in access litigation at the law firm of Miller Korzenik Sommers LLP.
"Blanket denials of such information are contrary to the law and public policy," Maytal said. "In fact, it seems logical that more victims would be willing to come forward if they knew reported sex crimes lead to convictions."
Joel Engelman, who alleges he was molested as a child at the hands of a teacher in his Satmar yeshiva in Brooklyn, feels the DA should not only be publicizing the names of those who have been convicted, but those who have been charged as well.
"With the admission of the District Attorney's liaison that intimidated Orthodox victims back out from pursuing justice and the cases go cold, it is all the more imperative that [the DA] release the names of the persons being charged," Engelman told The Jewish Week. "Otherwise, how is the community to be aware that the charged individual may be a danger to their children? Also, by publicizing the names of the charged persons, another victim of the charged person who is willing to talk may get the courage to come forward and continue the case."
When asked what, if anything, the DA was doing about the intimidation of victims, Schmetterer told The Jewish Week that "we work very closely with the victims and their families in these, as in all, cases. Every victim is provided with a culturally sensitive social worker as well as an assistant district attorney. All victims are encouraged to report any intimidation or other pressure they receive regarding their case. Any evidence of threats or other criminal conduct is fully addressed with detectives from our office and the NYPD."
When asked about whether his office has dealt with any such cases of intimidation, Hynes' spokesman said he "cannot comment on that." However, The Jewish Week has learned that the DA is pursuing parole violation charges against Yehuda Kolko. Kolko, who was initially charged with multiple felony counts of sexual abuse but ultimately allowed to plead to lesser charges and three years' probation, is accused of having violated an order of a protection signed after his guilty plea.
Michael Lesher, who is currently in New York's highest court seeking documents from the Brooklyn DA under the Freedom of Information law related to information on the case of Avrohom Mondrowitz case, praised the DA's Office on the arrests, but with caveats.
"We seem to be seeing a more aggressive posture from the DA about sex abuse prosecutions in that community. And that's a heartening thing," Lesher said. "On the other hand, it seems to be coming at the price of an intensified relationship between the DA's office and Orthodox institutions that have their own agenda when it comes to what the public should know in connection with these cases. Kol Tzedek is, after all, a political alliance [Kol Tzedek is in partnership with the Brooklyn-based OHEL Children's Home and Family Services].
"I think what is really at issue is not just the religious sensitivities of rank-and-file members of the Orthodox community but the specific concerns of powerful institutions in that community, many of which have been implicated and may well be implicated in the mishandling of sex abuse cases over the years."
Engelman hailed news of the arrests, saying "It is a positive step that the DA's office is finally publicly acknowledging the threats and intimidation the sexual abuse victims and their families endure in the Orthodox community."
According to Mark Meyer Appel, president of The Voice of Justice, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, said, "It seems to me from the statistics made available by the DA, about 30 percent of the cases are being dropped after the DA has spent thousands of dollars to get these cases started. I think it's time for the FBI step in and investigate to find out who is obstructing, who is intimidating these victims, and get them arrested. If we do this, then we have a chance to move forward and bring justice to victims."