Sunday, November 27, 2011
Orthodox Jewish Breaking the silence
The Brooklyn DA arrested an astounding 89 Orthodox men on charges of child sex abuse — forcing open a community that sometimes covers up such crimes
The numbers are startling — in the past two years, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’ office says it has arrested and charged 89 Orthodox Jewish men with child sex abuse.
It’s horrific and shocking, though in terms of effective law enforcement and honest dealings with the public, finally a good thing.
Some background: The Brooklyn DA has been accused for years by child advocates of handling the insular, image-conscious Orthodox Jewish community with kid gloves over sex-abuse scandals.
Those familiar with abuse survivors from within that community — myself included — have complained that Hynes is too fearful of retaliation from a politically powerful religious bloc to hold its sex abuse perpetrators to the same standard applied elsewhere in Brooklyn.
Hynes, who denies this, claimed in 2009 to have arrested 26 Orthodox Jewish men for sex abuse over a two-year period — a claim that drew some praise at the time, but also some skepticism for being just too good to be true. But now the DA is double-daring (or triple-daring) his doubters, claiming that since October 2009, the rate of sex-abuse arrests within that community has more than tripled, all the way up to 89.
Still, from the quiet way Hynes broke the news, one senses some reticence behind the bravado. There was no fanfare, no typical press release; Hynes’ spokesperson Jerry Schmetterer offered the numbers in an unheralded exchange with the Jewish newspaper Forward over two weeks ago, and left it at that.
But the unprecedented claim can’t possibly remain a whisper. With the child-abuse cover-up at Penn State on everyone’s lips, any report of such a whopping crackdown in a community notorious for resisting public reports of the crime is bound to have significant results.
True, the lack of detail about the arrests — the Brooklyn DA has declined to give names, charging information or current case status for any of the suspects, or even how far back these cases date — is cause for legitimate concern. I’m not surprised that child advocates within Orthodox Brooklyn have publicly cast doubt on the DA’s numbers. No one knows better than I how hard it can be to pry the facts about such cases out of Hynes’ office. To name just one instance: my four-year effort to obtain records of the abortive attempt to extradite Avrohom Mondrowitz, indicted on 13 child sex-abuse counts in 1985 and still at large in Israel, has led all the way to New York’s highest court, where I will be arguing the Freedom of Information Law case against the DA’s Office this winter.
Still, progress is progress.
Not so long ago, the DA would scarcely have dared to publicly announce charges of child sex abuse among religious Jews. He would have been pilloried in the Jewish press and all but accused of anti-Semitism. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen when his office unsuccessfully prosecuted Rabbi Bernard Freilich for witness tampering in a sex-abuse case just over 10 years ago.
Worse, Hynes’ past forays into the minefield of Orthodox sex abuse may actually have set back his law-enforcement goals — because the bolder the effort, the greater the risk of alienating the rabbis without whose approbation neither victims nor witnesses were likely to cooperate with police. In that light, last week’s announcement may suggest the Brooklyn DA is finally winning a long contest against the community’s code of silence. More openness from the DA can make the case still stronger — but if he is wresting control of law enforcement from interfering rabbis, so much the better.
When rabbis who hate and fear the non-Jewish world can dictate to the parents of Jewish child victims whether or not to talk to (mostly non-Jewish) police, a prosecutor’s job is not an easy one. In 2000, after a Hasidic family went to police over alleged abuse of their young son by another Orthodox Jew, some 50 rabbis signed a public announcement in a Yiddish-language Brooklyn newspaper literally authorizing the murder of anyone who “informs” on a fellow Jew to secular authorities.
So if Hynes’ current claimed figures suggest at least partial liberation of New York City’s justice system from a rabbinic stranglehold, his initiative should be encouraged, not scorned. After all, law enforcement wants to protect children in Orthodox communities; its main problem has been to enforce the law in a culture that has traditionally insisted on keeping its domestic crimes a private, shameful affair.
The best way for the DA to prove his bona fides is, as always, to share the truth. Let the public know the relevant facts about these 89 cases: suspect names, dates, charges. Show us that the code of secrecy in such matters no longer governs — that no one has the right to cover up crime. Open up to us, and shut the door on criminals who use religion as a screen for abuse.
The DA has made the right first step. All good people must encourage the next ones.
*Michael Lesher is a writer and lawyer, and a contributor to “Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals” (Brandeis University Press).