When Kenneth Thompson unseated longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes last November, advocates for Jewish victims of sex abuse were jubilant.
But, despite Thompson’s release last week of the names of 20 defendants in sex abuse cases that his predecessor had refused to unveil, in the months since Thompson has taken office the optimism advocates and victims initially felt has, for some, turned to disappointment.
Thompson campaigned on a platform of reform, including promising to more vigorously prosecute sex abuse cases than his predecessor, who is accused of dragging his feet on those cases to win the support of Brooklyn’s charedi leaders, who prefer to handle the claims internally.
But survivors and their advocates have decidedly mixed reviews of Thompson so far.
Ben Hirsch, co-founder of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates and educates on issues related to child safety, has been critical of Thompson’s tenure to date. He points to the DA’s plea bargain that led to no jail time for a man who threw bleach in the face of a prominent victim’s advocate as sending a message that he’s not going to go after people who try to intimidate victims and their advocates into not testifying.
“The power brokers are thrilled because they see case after case either being pleaded out with sweetheart deals or being dismissed,” Hirsch said.
In the bleach attack, Thompson’s office agreed to a plea deal of a felony conviction and five years probation for Meilech Schnitzler, who pleaded guilty to throwing bleach on the face of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg.
Thompson’s office defended the sentence because a felony conviction usually has serious consequences, but in the insular Satmar community, a felony conviction without jail time “is absolutely meaningless,” said Hirsch.
“The DA has done something terrible in sending a message to this community that it’s open season on advocates…,” Hirsch said.
But others remain hopeful that Thompson’s release of the names marks the beginning of a new era in the district attorney’s office.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that he’s going in the right direction,” said abuse survivor, advocate and writer Chaim Levin.
Releasing the names, he said, “was a massive step,” but the next step is to protect the victims in these cases from intimidation.
“I think Thompson is now being put to the test,” he said. “Now that he’s released these names, if any of these victims start recanting and he doesn’t do anything about it, I believe there won’t be justice.”
Though he remains optimistic, Levin is disappointed in the results from another case Thompson inherited, that of Sam Kellner, the father of a sex abuse victim who was falsely accused of bribing witnesses. The case against Kellner ultimately collapsed, but Levin and other advocates are disappointed that Thompson has not gone after the people, who accused Kellner, allegedly to protect the abuser, Baruch Lebovits.
“I don’t believe that the outcome of this case was necessarily Thompson’s fault,” Levin said, “but at the same time there’s this problem of witness intimidation. … The people who did that, they never had to respond to what they did and how they hampered this case.”
Asked about whether Thompson will go after people who intimidate victims and witnesses, Thomson spokeswoman Helen Peterson, said in a statement to The Jewish Week that “the DA is naturally concerned about that as he is in any cases where that may be a factor, including gang cases, domestic violence cases and other cases. There are certain protocols that are followed by our office in those cases, which we will not be disclosing as that would tend to undermine their effectiveness.”
Since January, Thompson’s office has arrested seven people accused of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community, Peterson wrote.
Asher Lipner, a psychologist who treats survivors of sexual abuse in the frum community, also praised Thompson for releasing the names of sex abusers. While Hynes had contended that he was withholding the names in order to protect the victims from intimidation, Lipner said that in his experience, most victims want their molesters named.
“Anybody who has the courage to come forward, from what I see from my patients, is that they want publicity about their case because they hope that other victims will come forward, because most of these molesters have more than one victim. The only cases where the victims don’t want publicity are cases of incest,” he said.
Advocates have also conceded that they understand that Thompson has other priorities that are just as important, such as expanding overturning false convictions. Since Thompson’s taken office he has expanded the conviction integrity unit from two to 10 prosecutors and three investigators, and has ordered seven murder convictions to be overturned.
“A lot of minorities have been in jail for over 20 years for completely fabricated evidence, and [Thompson] has made this a priority for the first couple of months,” said Mark Appel, founder of the Voice of Justice, an advocacy organization that works with victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community.
“Ken Thompson has come into a very difficult situation,” he added. “It’s time for all of us advocates to speak up and strengthen support for the survivors who are facing so much intimidation, and we have to be more aggressive in reporting every case of intimidation.”
“As we go forward I believe that, just like he succeeded in the conviction integrity unit, he’s going to get educated to the extent of intimidation in our community,” he said. “I think that he will turn out to be an effective advocate, but it’s a process.”
Political analyst Basil Smikle agreed.
“I think he may be slower in getting to the injustices that may be done to these victims, but overall I’m confident that he’ll be able to address the concerns and victims will be happy with the work that Thompson will eventually do,” said Smikle, who is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Smikle added that he expects Thompson will go after charedi sex offenders even if it comes with a political cost.
“If he is aggressively addressing sex abuse claims in the Orthodox community he may lose that block vote, but I think ultimately it’s better for him to be able to say that he fought for it rather than turning a blind eye to it,” he said.