Success Amid Secrets for Brooklyn D.A.

Hynes Outstrips Others in Orthodox Sex Abuse Crackdown

By Paul Berger

Published May 07, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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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.

But Hynes’s number claims have come under scrutiny after an April 24 article in The New York Jewish Week reported that eight cases the D.A. claims as a result of Kol Tzedek were active before the program began. In response, the D.A.’s spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, told the newspaper that the D.A. “made [the cases] part of Kol Tzedek.”

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.”

Plea deals are particularly important in child sex abuse cases, say the defenders of these deals, because such crimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Victims often come forward months or years after the assault. There are rarely witnesses or DNA, just the survivor’s word against his or her abuser.

Prosecutors say victims often struggle against a sense of embarrassment and shame. In court, they are forced to relive their trauma, and they often face character assassination by the defense. If victims come forward while they are still children, the process can be even more complicated and traumatic.

“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.

Even without community pressure, many Orthodox parents are reticent to come forward out of fear they will be ostracized, their children thrown out of school and their chances of marriage damaged. In cases where abuse is committed by a relative, there are further pressures associated with reporting a husband, father, brother, uncle or son.

Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Dever said Orthodox cases are complicated further because of the involvement of rabbis, who are often consulted before a victim reports abuse to the police. “By the time it gets to us,” Dever said, “it has already been through rabbis, and everyone has a version of events.”

But in most cases, Dever said, she feared abuse complaints never reach her office. “They [Orthodox Jews] don’t want outside intervention, which is why most of them don’t come forward.”

Set against this backdrop, Dever said she would not be surprised if Hynes agreed not to release defendant’s names in return for community cooperation. “If the community is not going to be cooperative, what is he supposed to do?” she said.

Yet even the ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, which maintains that a rabbi must be consulted in most cases before a suspect can be reported to police, opposes Hynes’s blanket ban on naming Orthodox sex crime suspects. “The law has to treat everybody equally,” said David Zwiebel, Agudath’s executive vice-president.

Zwiebel believes each case should be judged on its merits. “I certainly don’t think it’s healthy for us as a community, for the Brooklyn D.A. or anybody to say [they are] going to make blanket assumptions about the entire community… rather than thinking about each individual case,” he said.

Zwiebel was cautious to distinguish between cases where people had been convicted of abuse and those where people had only been charged. But for those convicted of sex abuse crimes, Zwiebel was unequivocal. “If the community wants to protect themselves,” he said, “they need to know from whom to protect themselves.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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