Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who has been accused by some of not doing enough to prosecute alleged pedophiles in the Orthodox community, announced Wednesday a new initiative aimed "at helping sex-crime victims in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities report abuse."
The effort, dubbed Project Kol Tzedek (Voice of Justice) and unveiled at a news conference at his Hynes’ office, is being billed by the DA as a joint project between their office and a number of Jewish organizations, including Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, Tikvah at Ohel, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the Jewish Board of Children and Family Services, all of which had representatives at the conference.
Conceived as an outreach program, Kol Tzedek will offer a confidential hotline and access to "culturally sensitive" social workers and prosecutors from the office’s Sex Crimes Bureau. It will be coordinated by Chana Widawski, a social worker who previously worked at the DA’s office on a project that addressed domestic violence in the Orthodox community. Rhonnie Jaus, the chief of the office’s Sex Crimes Bureau, Sarah Ellis, director of Victim Services and Henna White, the DA’s community liaison to the Orthodox community, will also be involved.
Acknowledging the community’s insularity and the cultural taboo against reporting abuse to the secular authorities, Hynes stressed the importance of partnering with Orthodox institutions and leadership in this effort.
"It is my belief that with the cooperation of these stakeholders who stand with me today, who have broad credibility within the Orthodox community, we will encourage victims of sexual abuse to come forward, utilizing communication channels to make them feel comfortable," said Hynes. He added that "by working together with the help of the leadership present today, and … with community organizations, yeshivas, schools and other points of contact in the Orthodox community, we can best educate victims and potential victims and their families about the resources available through Kol Tzedek."
This is not the first time the DA has created a program specifically targeted at the Orthodox community, or at the issue of sexual abuse in that community. In addition to the domestic violence program, known as Project Eden, and a project to address drug abuse in the Orthodox community, Hynes’ office launched, in 1997, the Offender Treatment Program to treat Orthodox child molesters.
That program, now defunct, was a partnership between the DA’s office and Ohel. According to a 2000 article in The Jewish Week, the program had, at the time, 16 participants, half of whom had been through the court system and were receiving treatment in place of incarceration. The remaining half was comprised of offenders whom the community pressured to seek help without notifying authorities.
Indeed, these communities have a long history of dealing with abuse cases internally, in some instances convening religious courts to hear allegations, something that both victims and legal experts see as highly problematic. Such bodies not only lack the skills and training to evaluate abuse claims, but they are also highly susceptible to corruption. In addition, according to Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School and the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children," "Religious courts have no capacity to protect the public. They cannot put convicted criminals in jail or send those that are guilty but mentally ill to mental health facilities. The secular criminal system is created to be accountable to the people and to the needs of the people, no matter their religious faith. Accountability of religious courts does not share this feature."
Hynes suggested his new program would address this problem, emphasizing that "the key component of this project is to encourage the rabbis to encourage victims to come forward. And that is what has begun to happen. … Will there be some who will be resistant? Sure. But I have been debating the [religious court system] for 19 years and I have said over and over again to rabbis who have become very good friends of mine, ‘That is not your jurisdiction or authority. The authority to handle criminal cases lies within Kings County and I’m the elected district attorney.’"
Michael Lesher, an attorney and author who has long worked on this issue, is cautiously optimistic about Hynes’ new effort, though he contends that this was not always the DA’s position. In a chapter in a new book entitled "Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals," edited by Amy Neustein, Lesher and Neustein discuss the 2000 case of Shlomo Haffner. In this case, Lesher says, "all the facts suggested that the DA let a panel of rabbis make the decision about whether to prosecute a 96-count criminal complaint against a chasidic Jew. They pulled the case while the grand jury was still sitting."
However, Lesher "[likes] what the DA is now saying about the rabbinical courts," and told The Jewish Week that "This program sounds like the right sort of idea. But," he added, "[the DA’s office] has many years of poor history to compensate for. [They] had [the Offender Treatment Program], whose record was troubling. There was a lack of transparency there, you didn’t know how many offenders were involved, or what happened to them after they left treatment. I would hope that this [new] program shows that they have learned from the errors of the previous one."