Monday, May 7, 2012
Success Amid Secrets for Brooklyn D.A.
Ford was one of several prosecutors who said it was unusual that Hynes refused to release the names of Orthodox abuse suspects he has compiled via Kol Tzedek, a special outreach program to Orthodox victims of sexual abuse. But several other prosecutors also declined to release such names.
Patricia Gunning, chief of the sex crimes unit in Rockland County, N.Y., said her office keeps no formal list like the one Hynes has compiled but she is currently handling about half a dozen Orthodox felonies plus multiple misdemeanors. Asked to disclose the names of these defendants, she refused.
The rarity of indictments or convictions of Orthodox sexual predators in other jurisdictions, compared with Hynes’s Brooklyn, suggests the complexity of evaluating the Brooklyn D.A.’s claim that pursuing sexual abuse in Orthodox communities requires a special approach.
His policy of not publicly disclosing alleged or even convicted Orthodox sexual predators was highlighted formally and in writing for the first time in Hynes’s response to a Freedom of Information Law request from the Forward and other media outlets. The Forward requested the names of the 85 alleged or convicted child sex abusers Hynes has publicly claimed to have charged in the last three years under the Kol Tzedek program.
“The circumstances here are unique,” Assistant District Attorney Morgan Dennehy wrote in his April 16 denial of the Forward’s request. “Because all of the requested defendant names relate to Hasidic men who are alleged to have committed sex crimes against Hasidic victims within a very tight-knit and insular Brooklyn community, there is a significant danger that the disclosure of the defendants’ names would lead members of that community to discern the identities of the victims.”
Hynes has been criticized for years by abuse victims and their advocates — and in editorials in media outlets such as the Forward — for his handling of sex crimes in the Orthodox community. The prosecutor not only refuses to name Orthodox individuals who have been charged with abuse, he is withholding the names of 14 people who were convicted of abuse-related crimes and 24 Orthodox adults who were released on probation after pleading guilty to lesser charges. They include at least 13 people who have registered or who will have to register as sex offenders.
Advocates for full disclosure argue that releasing names would enable members of these tight-knit communities to better protect their families. Institutions such as schools could also more easily ensure they don’t hire child sex abusers — who sometimes move from one Orthodox community to another — for positions that involve contact with children, advocates say.
Hynes has offered to confirm names submitted to his office. But this would require sifting through thousands of records to identify those whose names suggest they are Orthodox Jews.
Hynes has come under pressure partly because Kol Tzedek, by specifically targeting the Orthodox community, generates a list of Orthodox names, and because his office has publicly touted the program’s success — and its number of arrests.
Hynes has also been criticized by victim support groups for too often accepting plea deals instead of going to trial. He is not alone.
In Orange County, N.Y., the parents of an Orthodox abuse victim sent an open letter to District Attorney Francis D. Phillips on April 26, stating that they were “expressly opposed” to a plea bargain for 52-year-old Joseph Gelbman, who was arrested last year on charges of abusing a 14-year-old boy.
Phillips did not respond to several calls for comment about the issue of tackling Orthodox abuse.
Yet several prosecutors said plea deals are often the best outcome a prosecutor can hope for. “The phrase ‘plea deal’ often has a negative connotation for the public,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts, which has tackled abuse in Boston’s Roman Catholic community. “A defendant does not plead guilty out of their own good nature.”
“If I stand a better chance of taking a plea and getting a person registered [as a sex offender] and notifying the public via that avenue,” said Gunning, the sex crimes unit chief in Rockland County, N.Y., “that might be the best decision.”
Gunning said during her four years working in Rockland County, which includes the ultra-Orthodox enclaves of Monsey and New Square, all of her abuse cases have resulted in plea deals, though she was quick to add that her office takes many cases to trial.
She defended her refusal to name those charged in any of the half-dozen or so sexual abuse felonies and multiple misdemeanors she is currently handling in which the defendants are Orthodox community members.
“In a couple of cases…[the victims] are fragile, and I would do anything not to compound the difficulty they already face,” Gunning said. “You can see our court calendars. It’s not like we are trying to keep some secret from the media,” she added. “We want to protect our victims. Period.”
But victims and their advocates are suspicious of this secrecy, particularly because sections of the Orthodox community have been so hostile toward abuse victims and their families.
Intimidation has been widespread. In Ocean County, Ford brought witness tampering charges against Shaul Luban in 2010 for sending a text message to community members, urging them to pressure a victim’s father not to co-operate with police. Meanwhile, Ford has never solved the case of an arson attack on the home of parents who spoke out after their abused son, Yehoshua Finkelstein, died in an apparent suicide several years ago.