Under fire for his handling of child sexual abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community, the Brooklyn district attorney will “possibly” involve some members of the advocacy community on his new task force to combat intimidation of witnesses in such cases, according to a spokesman.
The task force, announced last week after months of media scrutiny on the sex abuse issue, will be “intra-agency, consisting of the heads of our Sex Crimes and Rackets Division, our chief investigator and will be chaired by District Attorney Hynes,” according to the spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer. “The NYPD will also be invited to participate,” he added.
Schmetterer also noted that the substance of the meetings will be confidential.
News of the formation of the task force — the possibility of which was first reported last Thursday in The Jewish Week — was met with a range of reactions from the religious, advocacy and law enforcement communities.
Rabbi David Zwiebel, the executive vice president of the haredi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, told The Jewish Week that he knows “nothing about the task force other than what’s been reported in the media” and added that he has “no problem with the concept, and will be happy to cooperate with it.”
The Agudah has long been criticized by victims’ advocates and, more recently, politicians like Council speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, for its policy that all abuse allegations first be vetted by rabbis. Rabbi Zwiebel recently told The Jewish Week that those with direct information about a crime, including victims or witnesses, should go directly to the police.
Some victims’ advocates, however, expressed reservations about Hynes’ new initiative, stressing that in order for it to be effective, it should be broadened to include them. Others were more critical, fearing that it will amount to little more than lip service designed to quiet criticism of the DA and forestall intervention by the state or federal government in this issue — a concern echoed by some people with law enforcement experience.
Dr. Asher Lipner, a clinical psychologist and anti-abuse activist voiced his concerns in a letter he e-mailed to former Mayor Ed Koch.
Lipner told Koch that many victims’ advocates “find it troubling that the district attorney, who has never reached out to work with us, has not taken the opportunity [to do so] now that he is creating [this] task force.” Lipner added that the “choices Mr. Hynes has made for his task force do not reflect a willingness to work with anybody that is truly independent of his office, and therefore are beyond the scope of community politics.”
Koch in turn sent another e-mail to Hynes in which he told the DA that he thought his “statement to the [New York] Times reporter and that of your press secretary [about the task force] were inadequate and far too limited in outlining the composition of the committee you plan to have address the problem.” And Koch urged Hynes to “meet with Asher Lipner and to add to your committee law enforcement personnel who currently have worked with groups similar to the hasidic, such as the Amish.” (Hynes declined to meet with Lipner).
Combating the possible intimidation of witnesses in a tight-knit community like ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn can be a difficult one.
In an e-mail exchange with Koch given to The Jewish Week last week, Hynes noted that Orthodox abuse victims are often too intimidated to come forward and that his office has tried unsuccessfully to get a victim to wear a wire.
Koch had chastised Hynes for his policy of refusing to release names of Orthodox abusers charged by his office and for failing to go after those who intimidate witnesses, going so far as to suggest that Gov. Andrew Cuomo appoint a special prosecutor to take over. An editorial in Sunday’s New York Post, headlined “Move Over, Joe,” made the same case.
A former prosecutor with experience dealing with Brooklyn issues who requested anonymity so as not to compromise his ability to work with the district attorney’s office in the future echoed Lipner and Koch’s sentiments.
“If you really want to get at this problem, as opposed to simply quieting critics, you have to have community advocates on your task force because this requires working with and changing attitudes in the community. If it was as simple as having the DA and the NYPD telling the community to stop the intimidation they could or would have done that a while ago.”
The former prosecutor added, however, that “having community advocates requires a lot of work and a lot of work with those who have been critical of the DA in the past. And the DA has to decide if he’s willing to do that.” He also noted that to be really effective, the DA also needs to involve other [city] agencies, like ACS [Administration of Child Services], that are also “on the ground” dealing with these issues.
Ros Dann, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Survivors for Justice, expressed concern that “in the name of political expediency DA Hynes will continue ignoring the blatant intimidation of victims and their families perpetrated by well-known, powerful rabbis and will instead target some nobody rabbi from nowhere to hang in the public square.”
Indeed, victims’ advocates point both to general, public statements as well as private conversations in which prominent rabbis have instructed victims not to go to the authorities.
For example, in 2006, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the mashgiach ruchani at Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., proclaimed in a taped speech at that year’s Agudah convention that sometimes it was good to sweep abuse under the carpet. Referring to the publicizing of the case of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, which was unfolding in Brooklyn at the time, he likened those who would speak out publicly about abuse — and the rabbis’ failures to deal with it — to the Wicked Son in the Passover Haggadah. Rabbi Salomon noted that the correct response to this child is to “knock out his teeth” (“hakei es shinav”), which, he elaborated, would mean shunning those exposing the abuse as well as preventing the children of those publicizing the Kolko allegations from attending communal schools so they would not infect other students with their outspokenness.
Additionally, in a sworn affidavit, the parent of one Kolko victim claims he was told by Rabbi Lipa Margulies, the founder and dean of the Yeshiva Torah Temimah, the school where Kolko allegedly abused his son, that Rabbi Margulies could not be responsible for his family’s safety if his son kept telling people about his abuse.
In February of 2006, a Torah Temimah alumnus, parent and son of one of the school’s founders, Eli Greenwald, was served with a summons (that later appeared online) to a religious court issued by Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a prominent Brooklyn rabbi and yeshiva head who has also served in a senior position with the Orthodox Union for over 20 years; it called him to answer the charge of Hotzoas Shem Rah [slander] allegedly committed by him against Kolko after Greenwald called the school to investigate allegations of Kolko’s abuse. According to sources familiar with the situation, Greenwald responded to the summons and agreed to have the matter adjudicated, but neither Belsky nor Kolko responded, leaving many to speculate at the time that the summorns was itself an act of intimidation.
A letter recently circulated online by Pearl Engelman, the mother of man who alleges he was abused as a child by Avrohom Reichman, a teacher in the Satmar yeshiva, implicated the son of one of the two Satmar rebbes, Rabbi Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum, in intimidation.
According to the letter, the mother of an alleged victim of Nechemya Weberman “went to Rabbi Teitelbaum (R’ Zalmen Leib’s son) and [another rabbi] and told them my story.” Engelman reports that the mother was told “we are still Yiddishe kinder and for this Weberman doesn’t have to sit in jail, we will take care of him and he will never do this again, and do not hinder us from protecting him.”