With increased scrutiny on the handling of sex-abuse cases involving members of Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, some elected officials are beginning to take a stand on practices tied to District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the leading candidates to succeed him last week called on Hynes to discourage rabbis from screening abuse allegations before they are reported to the authorities.
The statements came after The New York Times joined many other media in detailing instances where alleged victims were intimidated within their community.
But few elected officials this week wanted to take a position one way or the other regarding another controversial practice of Hynes’ office: that of withholding from the public a list of names of Orthodox people accused or convicted of sexual abuse crimes. The list was compiled through a hotline called Kol Tzedek, which was launched in 2009 with the goal of encouraging victims of abuse to come forward to law enforcement.
“No thanks,” said Bloomberg’s press secretary, Stu Loeser, in an e-mail response to two e-mail messages and a phone call asking for comment on the mayor’s view on releasing the names.
Citing concern about identifying the victims, Hynes has refused to comply with Freedom of Information Law requests filed by The Jewish Week, asking him to release the 95 names.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to a detailed message left with his press office on the topic, nor did the state’s highest law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, as of Tuesday.
On Saturday The Times quoted Bloomberg and three likely contenders for his job next year advocating immediate reporting of abuse allegations.
“Our first concern is with victims of crime, especially potential victims of child abuse, and the first call should be to the appropriate law enforcement authorities,” said Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said, “Law enforcement must focus all its attention on protecting victims, not on shielding abusers.”
And Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said, “There should be one standard of justice for the whole city.”
But when asked whether Hynes should release the Kol Tzedek names of suspected abusers, none responded in time for publication.
The silence seems to illustrate the sensitivity of the topic in dealing with a community that can deliver large blocs of votes, but also may suggest a wariness to publicly criticize a man who has been a fixture in Brooklyn politics, occupying the same office for more than two decades.
And Hynes, who turns 77 later this month, shows no sign of retirement. He once told The Jewish Week he intended to be the Robert Morgenthau of Brooklyn, referring to the Manhattan DA who retired at age 90 in 2009 after 35 years on the job.
Except for Bloomberg, who is an independent, all the above elected officials are, like Hynes, Democrats.
Hynes’ position on closely guarding the names on his Kol Tzedek list seems to show an excess of caution. The powerful Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America has not called for such an accommodation.
One of its leaders, Rabbi David Zwiebel, vice president for governmental affairs has publicly said that he believes Hynes should not withhold the names of all Orthodox suspects and felons in sex abuse cases, and reiterated that stance on Tuesday following renewed focus on the issue due to the Times articles.
“I am grateful for the fact that [Hynes] is sensitive to the community and there is a legal obligation to protect the victims,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “But he should do so on a case-by-case basis. What he has said and what his people have said is that they have adopted this as a matter of policy, because it’s such a close-knit community.”
Hynes’ spokesman Jerry Schmetterer confirmed on Tuesday that no case-by-case assessment was made.
“It’s across the board,” he said. “We believe that exposure of defendants’ names leads to possible identification of the victim, and our concern is to protect the victim and protect the integrity of the case.” He added that “we don’t generally publicize any sex abuse cases in this office of any community.”
However, the Jewish Week has obtained numerous press releases from Hynes’ office that publicize convictions and plea bargains of sex offenders and identify the perpetrators.
Schmetterer later said that his office does comment on cases if reporters are already covering the trials.
In what appears to be a recent concession to requests from The Jewish Week and others for the names, Schmetterer recently said his office, if presented with a name obtained elsewhere, would confirm the names of suspects reported through the Kol Tzedek hotline.
“These names are public record, the cases are in open court and they are available to any media or citizen who wants to go in and watch the proceedings,” said the spokesman. “People can go to court and see what’s on the calendar or talk to lawyers.”
A Jewish Week examination last month of names confirmed by Schmetterer to be on the list found that eight cases predated the formation of Kol Tzedek while others were found to have been reported to authorities through means other than the hotline, which Hynes has touted as a success.
The Times May 11 report said the paper used public records to identify the names of suspects and other details related to 47 Kol Tzedek cases.
“More than half of the 47 seemed to have little to do with the program, according to the court records and interviews,” the paper reported. “Some did not involve ultra-Orthodox victims, which the program is specifically intended to help. More than one-third involved arrests before the program began, as early as 2007. Many came in through standard reporting channels, like calls to the police.”
This raises the question of whether the list is being kept from the public to avoid scrutiny of the effectiveness of the program.
Critics say that publicizing the names of suspects before they get to court or after they are convicted — especially if they are not required to register as a sex offender— would allow people in Orthodox communities to take precautions against potential predators.
One such critic is Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Borough Park and Flatbush.
“If it’s my next-door neighbor, my grandchildren come over on a regular basis, I would want to know,” said Hikind, who has openly called on Hynes to publicly release the names.
“I don’t get it,” he told The Jewish Week on Tuesday. “[Hynes] should explain this much more than he has. He should hold a press conference where everyone should ask more questions. So far it doesn’t make much sense. …. Each perpetrator has multiple victims. Releasing information in one case is going to mean Yankel or Shloimie or Esther was molested?”
Two other prominent Orthodox politicians this week, however, took a pass on the issue.
Councilman David Greenfield, who also represents Borough Park and Flatbush, did not respond to questions addressed to him by e-mail and through an intermediary.
And Simcha Felder, Greenfield’s predecessor who is now deputy city comptroller and a candidate for state Senate, said on Friday he needed more time to look into the matter. On Tuesday, he said, “I’m still researching this issue and decline to comment.”
Former Mayor Ed Koch this week called on Governor Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor for Orthodox community abuse cases unless Hynes (who himself came to prominence as a special prosecutor in the 1987 Howard Beach racial attack trial) releases all the names on the Kol Tzedek list and announces that anyone obstructing an investigation will be prosecuted.
“You must not provide preferential treatment under the law,” said Koch in an interview Tuesday. “What Hynes has done is make some people more equal than others.”
In related news, Zwiebel on Tuesday clarified the view of rabbis affiliated with his organization on the matter of reporting suspected abuse to authorities.
While it has been reported that those rabbis generally forbid going directly to authorities because of the concept of mesirah — a traditional prohibition against informing on a Jew to secular authorities — Rabbi Zwiebel said those with direct information about a crime, including victims or witnesses, should go directly to police.
It is only in cases where the credibility of a claim is in doubt, he said, that rabbis should be involved to help establish what is called raglayim l’davar, which essentially means a leg to stand on, or immutable proof.
That position was stated by Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the organization, on an Orthodox blog last July.
“What we have been doing is publicizing the rulings of senior halachic decisors of this area,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “The importance of getting the message out is precisely to combat the attitude that was described in The Times story of not being allowed to report — ‘it’s mesirah, if you do it you’re going to be ostracized from the community’ and so on and so forth. We found that to be a troubling development.”
Rabbi Zwiebel said Agudah rabbis are “virtually unanimous in saying that when it is beyond the place of mere speculation, or raglayim l’davar, [when] it’s a credible claim you should go to authorities.”
He added that while his organization has held “training sessions” to help rabbis respond to claims, and urged the public to seek out rabbis who have experience in fielding matters of abuse, there was no immediate plan to set up a uniform set of protocols for establishing credibility of claims. “I suspect that won’t happen because everyone approaches it differently,” he said.
Asked if he felt that a parent should take the report of a child of abuse as “raglayim l’davar,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, “If I were a parent and that happened to me, I probably would discuss it with a rabbi.”
Hikind said he didn’t understand why other politicians won’t take a position on the Kol Tzedek list.
“Believe me, there was a period of time for me personally when people did not appreciate that this was being discussed, but the awareness level is much higher [now],” he said.
“We want to do the right thing and protect future victims,” Hikind continued, “but why someone won’t talk about this — it’s definitely an indication that we have a long distance to go.”