Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes is weighing charges in as many as four more cases of possible intimidation of Orthodox sexual abuse victims as a result of a newly formed task force, he told The Jewish Week.
And he reiterated a warning, first made in May, that rabbis who “cross the line” and discourage people from taking complaints to authorities may be charged with obstructing governmental administration.
In a wide-ranging interview, an often testy Hynes — stung by widespread criticism of his handling of Orthodox abuse cases — and his top prosecutor for sex crimes, Rhonnie Jaus, seemed to confirm that all cases involving sex abuse in the Orthodox community are considered part of the Kol Tzedek program regardless of whether they came about through the hotline initiative, which was intended to pierce a wall of silence in close-knit Orthodox communities .
Jaus justified the inclusion of cases that predate Kol Tzedek — she estimates between 10 and 12 — because they utilized resources now part of the program, including social workers and prosecutors, and continue to do so.
Hynes said he was perplexed by media scrutiny of his claims about the quantity of cases brought as result of the Kol Tzedek initiative, asking, “Why is that important?” (The Jewish Week first reported the story about the numbers discrepancy.)
Asked about the perception created by the arrests last month of four men accused of interfering an abuse case involving a chasidic girl in Williamsburg — closely on the heels of an article in The New York Times scrutinizing his handing of such cases — Hynes said it was “silly” to assume that he acted because of the criticism.
He said the prosecution came about because of a recommendation by former Mayor Ed Koch that he create a task force, in addition to the Kol Tzedek program, to probe intimidation. That recommendation by Koch came immediately following a Times story quoting public officials urging Hynes to crack down on intimidation.
The DA, who was elected in 1989, said he is seeking support from fellow district attorneys for legislation that would require religious leaders to report any knowledge of abuse, while at the same time protecting the sanctity of communication between clergy and those who seek their counsel.
Below are excerpts from the interview, which took place in Hynes’ office on June 27. A shorter version of the interview appeared in the print edition.
Jewish Week: Can you clarify what constitutes a Kol Tzedek case?
Rhonnie Jaus: We have at least103 cases, maybe 104, because we just got another arrest. Basically Kol Tzedek cases involve sexual assault, not child sexual assault [as sometimes reported in the media]. Most of the cases, to be honest, involve allegations of child sexual assault, meaning adults looking back to child sexual assault, but they are child victims involving the ultra-Orthodox community. The majority of the cases involve victims and defendants being Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, but there are cases where it’s just the victim and some where just the defendant [are].
We started working on Kol Tzedek pretty much at the end of 2008. We formally announced it in 2009. There are three components of the program: it’s designed to encourage members of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community to come forward to report allegations of sexual assault. In order to do that, the first component is community outreach and [community liaison] Henna [White] and [social worker] Chana [Widawski] are very instrumental in that, getting out to the community and educating the public about what the criminal justice system is and the fact that their names won’t be disclosed that’s is a very big issue in this particular community. … They are very afraid of retaliation.
Hynes: In fact civil rights law precludes the disclosure of a name.
Jaus: The second component is we putting measures in place the make the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of the community … so have the ultra-Orthodox social worker we have hotline and we allow we encourage people to come to our offices to report the allegations instead of going to the precinct; that’s been a very big component of the success because. People are fearful of being seen in the 9-0 [in Williamsburg] or the 6-6 [in Borough Park] walking to the police officer, so if people can come here instead ern if woerand FIX. a lot of times people are coming in three or four times to talk to us.
The third component of this is we try to maintain the cooperation of the victims. The cases can drag on for two years and so that is very difficult, and very often there’s threats and all kind of terrible things happening to them during that two-year period. So we have to refer cases to the rackets bureau and utilize social workers and Henna is very important in the program and that’s how we are able to keep people’s cooperation.
Some of the cases we had worked on in ’08 were still open when we had a press conference in ’09 for the program.
Hynes: I’m just curious. Why is it that it’s so terribly important in the scheme of things, unless there’s a suggestion that we’re making this thing up? I mean, for 19 years we had a handful of cases because victims were disclosed almost immediately and whether we had 47 or 147 — what’s the point?
The defendants were being named and that would lead to a relentless chase to the victims.
By the way, and this is my fault because I didn’t articulate it correctly … We are not embargoing names, we can’t tell the courts not to publicize the names, every time a case appears on a court docket its public. What we are trying to do and have been effective at doing is making it more difficult for defendants’ friends and relatives to find out names of victims; it’s that simple.
How many people are involved in the Kol Tzedek program?
Jaus: We have the social worker who answers the hotline, Henna also answers the hotline and we have assistants in the sex crimes and crimes against children bureau … we designated assistants who have sensitivity with the cases and have a feeling and can develop a rapport with the victims. We use our assistants over and over. Kevin O’Donnell who tried the case against Yonah Weinberg is someone the victims really like.
Our examination of some of the Kol Tzedek cases shows that some took place before the program was launched.
Rhonnie Jaus: We had a few cases that were still in existence before we formally announced Kol Tzedek ….because they were in existence and we utilized the services of the case worker, for example Chana Widawsky, Henna White and myself were working very closely with the victims because one of the most important components is to maintain the cooperation. You see what happens to the victims. People lose interest, they get afraid they run away and so we had to utilize the services of the program. The third component is keeping cooperation. We have so many problems with all the things that happen … they can’t go to school, can’t go to camp. All this intimidation in the courtroom so you need the social workers to really help you.
Some critics have questioned the timing of the recent arrests of four men from Williamsburg for bribery or witness tampering charges, saying or implying that it is politically motivated because of recent press reports.
Hynes: That’s amateurish. That’s like saying in 2004 you have been district attorney for 14 years, why did it take so long to indict a county chairman or three corrupt judges or a corrupt assemblyman? That’s just a misunderstanding of what investigations are all about. The plain fact is that we put together a task force and the first meeting was in mid-May and one of the first cases we looked at was this one. We looked at cases that had been under previous investigation. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the reason this young man decided to cooperate was when they ripped his hecksher off the wall. [Editor’s note: Hershy Deutsch, the boyfriend of a girl who claims she was abused by Nechemya Weberman, who was then a counselor in her school, alleges that he lost the kosher certification for a Williamsburg café he manages as a result of his advocacy for the victim.]
I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I mean, isn’t that really silly that suddenly out of nowhere I find a case because I am being pressured by the media? I think it’s among of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard.
Did new information come out because of the media attention?
Hynes: It came about as a result of a conversation I had with Ed Koch; he said, why don’t you put together a task force and I thought that made some sense I mean up until this time, at beginning of these stories I thought we were doing a pretty god job and witness intimidation did not become a problem for the most part with all prosecutions we were able to achieve with Kol Tzedek, but having a task force made sense and one of the things we agreed, because Chief [Michael] Osgood [of the NYPD’s Special Victims Division] sits on that task for with me, I chair the taskforce, was that we would look at all cases where there have been allegations of intimidation and an inability to get cooperation and this was the first case that we reinvestigated.
If the task force was instrumental, why wasn’t it formed earlier?
Hynes: I just told you why, you don’t accept the answer. I said, Ed Koch suggested it to me and I also told you, if you were listening, I thought we were doing a pretty good job and didn’t have to worry about witness intimidation, that we were circumventing the problem.
But didn’t you say witness intimidation has always been a concern?
Hynes: Yes, but we closed that loophole with Kol Tzedek.
What are the criteria for calling a case a Kol Tzedek case?
Jaus: Most of the cases come from calls to Henna, calls to myself, people go to the police we’ve had cases [when] people are in the police to report to the police and [find out about the program]. If it’s sexual abuse involving Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox defendants or victims [it is Kol Tzedek] and like I said in most of the cases it involves both.
We understand that you have recently been meeting with activists and advocates on behalf of abuse victims who have recently come forward with information. Can you comment on that? Are you including them in the task force?
The task force is a law enforcement task force and the goal of the task force is strictly limited to getting information about intimidation that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the first [case], we have at least four other potential cases that are coming out. Recently, I’m not going to identify him, but one of our critics has come in here, finally believing we were serious about this stuff and given us information. We have to test whether this information is prosecutable.
[Editor’s note: That person requested that The Jewish Week not disclose his identity. Another activist, Ben Hirsch, founder of Survivors for Justice, told The Jewish Week “Survivors for Justice declined the invitation to participate in a meeting with DA Hynes.” It was later reported by The Forward that Hynes met with Asher Lipner and Mark Appel, identified as community activists.]
Do you consider this a step forward?
HIt is. I had a meeting in Crown Heights a couple of weeks ago and this fellow, through an intermediary, said he that he had some information and would like to come in and see me. He spoke to Henna and he delayed coming in for a week or so, putting together some information s and has [now] given us some leads and said he is going to come in again. I’m hopeful the announcement of these indictments will encourage other people to come forward.
Do you think it will stop other people from engaging in intimidation?
Hynes: I think we’ve seen a significant change in that problem, if anything else, the Beis Din of Crown Heights issued an advisory or edict in which it said that mesira [a prohibition against reporting Jews to secular authorities] could not be used as an excuse not to report sex abuse. I think that’s a tremendous change. I think if the other beis dins would follow the lead of Crown Heights we might be on the way to solve this.
You have to understand, another religious group I deal with is the Catholic Church; since 2002 I have a memorandum of understanding that requires the bishop of Brooklyn … without screening. that the information be turned over to us immediately. We have roughly 10 working days to review and decide whether or not to go forward or send it back. If I had some central authority, I suppose, maybe like a beis din, that would ameliorate the change we made in the practice [by forming Kol Tzedek].
You have made a policy of not disclosing Kol Tzedek suspects to protect their victims in the close-knit Orthodox community, but what about cases where the victim is not Jewish?
Hynes: We’ve had allegations about non-Jewish victims being approached to be bribed. That’s one of the areas we are pursuing.
So it is your blanket policy not to disclose names in those cases as well?
Hynes: I thought I just answered that. I have said that we’re concerned about a victim being identified and we are making it difficult for defendants. Their friends and relatives to intimidate the victim … When a case goes to court the name is on the docket.
Jaus: Not to mention, if it’s a convicted sex offender they are on the sex offender registry. You just plug in your zip code and you get the information.
Except if they plead to a lesser charge and are not convicted of a sex offense, such as in the case of Yehudah Kolko.
Jaus: Kolko pled to a different charge because the victims in the case, despite what they say now didn’t want to testify and didn’t want their kids to testify.
Can you say anything about any upcoming witness intimidation cases that are pending?
Hynes: The investigation of political corruption, of which I have some experience, or this kind of investigation, requires very, very hard work and some luck. Am I optimistic that we’re going to get other cases? Not just because of the existence of the task force, but more because of the existence of an indictment charging people from that community with some serious charges.
Intimidation aside, what is your impression about how often rabbis are discouraging people from coming forward when asked for advice?
Hynes: What I’ve said to [Agudath Israel vice president] Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is that his suggestion that rabbis have to screen is wrong for two reasons: One, rabbis have no expertise in this area to determine what reaches a level for reporting, and what he’s doing is putting the rabbis in a very dangerous position; because one of these days a rabbi is going to make a mistake cross the line and tell someone under no circumstances are they to report abuse and they are going to be indicted for obstructing governmental administration. I made it very, very clear to Dovid that was my position.
Do you view this the same as witness tampering or witness intimidation? Are there constitutional issues protecting a rabbi’s advice?
Hynes: You’re changing the fact pattern. Why don’t you stay with my fact pattern? My fact pattern is, a rabbi says under no circumstances should you report this, that’s crossing a line. If a rabbi says mesirah prohibits you from reporting then that’s something I can’t deal with; I can’t pierce that religious connection.
In fact in the legislation I submitted to state DA’s Association’s legislative committee — which has now been passed on to the executive committee for the summer — specifically says in cases of confession or confidential communication to a religious person, whether a rabbi or a minister that would not require mandatory reporting. Mandatory reporting would be finding out about abuse of a third party. There is no reason why clergy should not be mandatory reporters as far as I’m concerned. Twenty-six states in this country have mandatory requirements, only two of them have clergyman-penitent exception: Remarkably, 24 do not. In New Hampshire and West Virginia, despite the clergy-penitent exception they require mandatory reporting in those cases where sex abuse of a third party is involved. There is no reason you can’t have that here for clergy as well.
You said earlier that rabbis don’t have the judgment to assess cases. Agudath Israel has said they are offering training courses for rabbis.
Hynes: I think he has backed away from that. The danger in that … I don’t think a clergy person has the ability or even should have the authority to do screening. The only thing I can do to get around this is hope I can get support in the legislature to change the mandatory reporting to include members of the clergy.
Can you give us an update in the Leiby Kletzky murder case? Will there be a trial?
Hynes: There will have to be a plea to the indictment, and I will seek as much jail time as I can get.
Do you think there will be an insanity plea?
Hynes: I’m sure the full range of defenses will be used by the defense lawyers. I can’t imagine the lawyer not attempting to use that defense.
Do you consider the suspect sane?
Hynes: Of course. There’s a very high bar set for criminal insanity in New York state.
Because he tried to conceal the evidence? Does that show he knew right from wrong?
Hynes: I’m not going to get into the specifics of the case.
What do you think about the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policies?
Hynes: I have nothing to do with that. For the most part I never get cases that involve that. What I try to do is, another thing that causes discontent in communities of color is the fact that a very high percentage of people arrested for marijuana possession are African Americans and what happens is they are given a desk appearance ticket. What I have suggested is the [ticket] can be issued at the stationhouse which would avoid taking the kid through the system. But as to whether the NYPD is stopping too many people and frisking them, I have no expertise to reach that conclusion.
What about the monitoring of Muslim communities by the NYPD?
Hynes: It depends on whether they have reason to believe a particular group of people may be engaged in dangerous conduct. I’m not going to second-guess Ray Kelly.
Do you think he would make a good mayor?
Hynes: I think he would make a great mayor, but I don’t think he is going to run for mayor.
Are you running for re-election?
Hynes: Yes, and do you want to know when? In 2013, 2017 and 2021. My last run will be in ’21, unless I don’t feel so good. I’m in good physical shape.
Are you worried about the perception of being politically too close to the Orthodox community?
Hynes: I pay no attention to that perception. I’m out in the community all the time and the reception I get is very positive. I have probably been to 25 meetings since Day 2 of the Times series and only one person has asked me anything about this issue. It’s not having much of an impact.