By Nick Pinto (Village Voice)
December 15, 2011
The relationship between Brooklyn's Orthodox and Hasidic communities and law enforcement has always been a delicate one. Our cover story last summer looked at how hard it is for victims of sexual abuse to get past religious leaders and neighborhood patrols to talk to the police.
At the center of the debate is Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who has been criticized by victims' advocates as being reluctant to prosecute Orthodox and Hasidic sex criminals. Lately Hynes has been trying to reverse that perception, but so far it looks like he's just managed to stir up more criticism.
The Jewish Daily Forward has been pressing Hynes for months to quantify just what his office is doing about the sex abuse problem, and last week the DA coughed up some numbers: His office told the New York Post that it has arrested and charged 85 Orthodox alleged child molesters in the last three years.
That's a big deal -- it's a significant jump from the 26 such arrests the DA reported from 2007 to 2009, and Hynes credits Kol Tzedek, a confidential hotline program he unveiled two years ago to much fanfare.
But there are some problems: By the DA's count, only 38 of those 85 cases have been closed, and only 14 resulted in jail time. Hynes's office told The Post that the other 24 accused molesters walked free "often because victims or their parents backed out under community pressure."
That squares with what advocates say often happens: Rabbinic leaders pressure victims' families to drop the case and stop cooperating with the investigation. Such behavior can add up to witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Hynes told the Forward any evidence of witness intimidation "is immediately pursued and investigated vigorously," but it's not clear to observers that his office has every brought witness intimidation charges against members of the Orthodox community.
Not everyone is even convinced that Hynes's numbers are accurate, though. The DA has refused to identify any alleged Orthodox sex criminals -- even the 14 who have been convicted. Hynes justifies that with an unusually expansive interpretation of a law that allows officials to withhold information that might reveal the identity of victims.
But even so, he appears to be applying the law selectively. Two days ago, his office issued a press release announcing the sentencing of an offender who isn't part of of the Orthodox community. The release named the offender, Gerald Hatcher, and specified that he was sentenced "for raping his girlfriend's 11-year-old daughter."
The Voice has asked the District Attorney's office for comment on all these issues, and we'll update as soon as we hear from them.
For victims' advocates, Hynes's reluctance to be more forthcoming is the final straw.
"I think the DA's office thought when they did this initial thing with The Forward they were just going to flip this number out there, and that would be it," says Michael Lesher, an Orthodox Jew and a lawyer who specializes in sex abuse cases within the community. "But it's really galvanized public interest and public anger."
For Ben Hirsch, the founder of Survivors For Justice, a support organization for sex-abuse victims from the Orthodox world, it's clear that Hynes isn't interested in addressing the problem.
"There's only one solution here," Hirsch says. "We need federal law enforcement. We need prosecution of the people who are blocking the reporting -- the problem is less the sex offenders themselves and much more the people who obstruct justice, thereby creating a safe haven and breeding ground for sex offenders."
Lesher agrees. "In this one connection, in this one community, this one kind of sex abuse case, we have this tremendous sensitivity that I can only explain as politics trumping law," he says. "Someone needs to come in and set that right."