One of the most high-profile convictions of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi for sexual abuse in recent times may be in danger of reversal, according to new disclosures in court records obtained by the Forward.
When Baruch Lebovits was sentenced last year to up to 32 years in jail, victims’ rights advocates hailed it as a turning point in the battle against sexual abuse in the insular Orthodox community.
“From now on,” Joseph Diangello, an abuse victim turned advocate, told The Jewish Star at the time, “victims of sexual abuse in the Hasidic community that have no voice with the people that are supposed to protect them will have a voice in the court of law.”
There was a sense that the wall of silence that had protected abusers in the ultra-Orthodox community for so long was finally crumbling.
But Lebovits’s 2010 conviction is now unraveling amid allegations of perjury, conspiracy and extortion.
Lebovits was destined to spend, at minimum, 10 years in prison. Instead, he was released on bail in April and placed under house arrest pending an appeal.
Lebovits’s release was prompted by revelations suggesting that some of the witnesses whose grand jury testimony helped indict him were actually engaged in a plot to extort him. Since then, prosecutors have insisted that the testimony offered by a key witness who testified at Lebovits’s trial remains untainted.
But new evidence submitted by Lebovits’s defense team suggests that this may not be the case.
Lebovits, a travel agent, was arrested in 2008 on charges of abusing two boys. Later, a third victim came forward.
Rather than prosecuting the cases as a group, a state judge ordered that each be tried separately.
The case involving the third victim was the first to go to trial. Lebovits appeared in court in March 2010 on charges of sexually abusing the boy over a period of 10 months.
The four-day trial heard how the boy — now a 22-year-old man — stole money from synagogue charity boxes to fund a drug addiction fueled by his abuse.
The prosecutor alleged that on numerous occasions during 2004 and 2005, Lebovits invited the boy into his car, where he abused him while parked in various public spots around Boro Park, a largely Orthodox neighborhood. The jury found Lebovits guilty on eight counts of sexual assault.
During sentencing in April, the courtroom was packed. Lebovits’s supporters, dressed in black suits, lined the benches on one side of the room. On the other side, an array of abuse victims and their advocates waited anxiously to see the outcome. A long pattern of suppression was seen as hanging in the balance.
For years, advocates have railed against leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community whom they blame for covering up for molesters.
Leading rabbis invoke Judaic religious laws such as mesirah — a prohibition against informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities — and the prohibition against lashon hara, evil gossip, as justification for not reporting abuse to secular law enforcement authorities.
But advocates for sex abuse victims say there are myriad reasons that the Orthodox leadership wants to suppress abuse claims. Their motives are said to include fear of litigation, a desire to shield the community from unfavorable attention and the protection of individual reputations. Even defenders of the ultra-Orthodox acknowledge that sometimes, concern for a child’s safety is overridden by fear that Child Protective Services will place an Orthodox child in a nonkosher home.
For years, rabbis have acted as a firewall against the secular world. Victims and their families have heeded religious courts and rabbinic leaders who warned them against reporting incidents to the police. Even today, Agudath Israel of America, the largest American ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, insists that Jews should consult a rabbi before reporting abuse to the police.
In Brooklyn, home to an estimated 180,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, District Attorney Charles Hynes has vowed to crack down on abuse in the community, even launching a special hotline for Orthodox victims. But advocates have scorned Hynes, charging that he has dragged his heels on some investigations and allowed other abusers to get away with generous plea deals. Hynes, they say, avoids aggressive prosecutions for fear of the political influence that Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders wield over their bloc-voting followers. Hynes has heatedly denied this criticism. And the severe sentence he obtained against Lebovits in this case at least seemed to reflect a genuinely aggressive stance.
Speaking after the sentence was handed down, Joel Engelman, an abuse survivor turned advocate, said the case sent a message to the Orthodox community that protecting abusers was no longer possible.
But today, Engelman warns that if Lebovits is acquitted, it will be “disastrous” not only for those who claim they were abused by Lebovits, but also for the way the entire community perceives the issue of abuse.
“It would basically tell anyone and everyone, abusers and abuser protectors, ‘You can go on doing what you’ve been doing,’” Engelman said.
When Lebovits was released on bail in April, Engelman called a community hotline, Kol Mevaser, to hear how the news was reported.
“They said that today is a very special day and a very happy day,” Engelman said, “because a member in our community convicted of very heinous crimes… was released and shown to be not guilty.”
The hotline reported that Lebovits’s release illustrated that even if members of the community are convicted in a secular court, “the system isn’t trustworthy.”
Lebovits’s conviction was thrown into doubt when another Brooklyn rabbi, Samuel Kellner, was arrested in April on charges related to the first two victims who reported Lebovits to the police.
Hynes accused Kellner of paying one of the victims $10,000 to falsely testify that he had been abused.
Hynes also accused Kellner of trying to extort $400,000 from Lebovits’s family in return for the two boys dropping their cases and preventing the third victim from coming forward. After Lebovits refused to pay, the third victim reported to the police.
Kellner pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted grand larceny, perjury and conspiracy and was released on bail.
At a press conference held soon afterward, Hynes said he was confident that Lebovits’s conviction, based on the testimony of the third victim at trial, would stand. That testimony was untainted by Kellner’s alleged extortion scandal, he said.
But court papers submitted in April, May and August by Lebovits’s defense team seem to show that the third victim — referred to in court papers as Y.R. — was very familiar with the alleged extortion scheme.
In the papers, the Brooklyn D.A. admitted that it was Kellner who brought the third young man to law enforcement authorities. Jerry Schmetterer, the D.A.’s spokesman, declined to comment because the case remains open.
In an affidavit, an individual referred to as “Witness B” told Lebovits’s lawyers: “[Y.R.] said he had a ‘guilty conscience’ about making a case against Baruch Lebovits. Community pressure from ‘powerful people’ was forcing Y.R. to go forward with the complaint.”
Witness B continued: “Y.R. asked me to contact the Lebovits family to ask them to pay him not to proceed. He asked me to get involved because he did not trust Kellner and was afraid Kellner would keep all the money.”
Another witness, one of the first two alleged victims who admitted he was given $10,000 by Kellner, said in an affidavit, “I saw [Y.R.] last night, July 21, 2010, and he said, ‘Kellner gave money to everyone and he [Kellner] is going to get in trouble.’”
In a tape recording also entered as evidence by Lebovits’s attorneys, Y.R. is heard telling a friend, “A man is sitting in jail because somebody [Kellner] had a premeditated plan not to put him away but to make money, and manipulate me to back off.”
In an interview with the Forward, Y.R. refuted the defense team’s allegations.
“My whole life has been ruined because of this,” he said. “I put myself out there and I went out and told them what happened.”
Y.R. said he was confident the D.A. had enough evidence to support the conviction. That evidence, he said, includes a recording of a conversation he had with Lebovits during the abuse investigation.
Y.R. said that he wore a New York Police Department wire during a meeting with Lebovits. “I told him, ‘What should I do because the NYPD are questioning me about what’s happened,” Y.R. said.
“He [Lebovits] answered me, ‘Just tell them leykenen shteyn un beyn’ ” or deny completely.
Nathan Dershowitz, a lawyer for Lebovits, said he had never heard of such a recording.
“If that were on tape, don’t you think it would have been introduced in evidence?” he said.
“I can only tell you that in the trial, as far as I know, nothing was ever introduced that suggested there was an admission here, ever,” Dershowitz said.
Although Lebovits’s conviction rested almost entirely on Y.R.’s testimony, the prosecution was aided by a court appearance by the sole defense witness, Rabbi Beryl Ashkenazi. But here, too, Lebovits’s defense team argues, the court was misled.
Ashkenazi was called by the defense to testify that Y.R. had offered to drop his sex abuse allegations against Lebovits in exchange for money. But Assistant District Attorney Miss Gregory dropped a pre-emptive bombshell when she turned on Ashkenazi in the courtroom, accusing him of sexually abusing two boys during the 1990s.
Gregory said that the statute of limitations was the only thing that prevented charges against Ashkenazi.
But in court papers, Lebovits’s defense team — which was joined by high-profile lawyer Alan Dershowitz last year — argues that those abuse claims should never have been made. They present an affidavit from one of Ashkenazi’s alleged victims, referred to as “Y.E.,” who denied having been abused.
Y.E. stated that Detective Steve Litwin of the New York City Police Department came to his home, accompanied by Kellner, at 2 a.m. a few nights before Ashkenazi took the stand.
“I advised Detective Litwin that Mr. Ashkenazi had not molested me,” Y.E. stated.
Lebovits’s defense team singles out Litwin for particular criticism.
“Why Detective Litwin would visit a potential witness at 2 a.m., and why he would take a civilian, Kellner, with him to speak to Y.E. is beyond understanding,” Lebovits’s lawyers say in court papers.
Some of Litwin’s case notes, which came to light only midway through the trial, showed that Litwin was aware of Y.R.’s links with Kellner during the police investigation into Lebovits.
According to his notes from two interviews conducted in January 2009, now entered as evidence in Lebovits’s appeal, Y.R. told Litwin that Kellner instructed him to hold out for $200,000 in exchange for dropping the charges. Y.R. also told Litwin that Kellner was working to raise a $50,000 payment.
“Detective Litwin’s notes of his conversations with Y.R. establish that Y.R. told him about Kellner’s efforts to get him money,” Lebovits’s defense team argues in the court papers.“But Detective Litwin did nothing with this information.”
Litwin declined to comment because the case is still being litigated.
In its motion for a new trial, Lebovits’s defense team argues that it is “fundamentally wrong for convictions to stand when the jury that convicted the defendant did not know the defendant was himself the victim of an extortion plot in connection with the very charges that the jury is considering.”
“Worse still,” it continues, “the complainant was ‘recruited’ as part of that extortion plot, received money to testify against Lebovits and denied it.”
Engelman said the claims and counterclaims are indicative of an insular community where insider dealing is the most common method of resolving disputes. Financial payoffs or threats of throwing people’s children out of school — rather than recourse to secular law enforcement officials — are often used to coerce people into settling disputes within the community.
“It’s a part of the sad phenomenon that’s going on,” Engelman said. “Whatever you see in court papers is a smidgen of the tip of the iceberg.”
Alan Dershowitz said his colleagues have filed an appeal and a motion for a new trial, based on the “newly discovered evidence.”
He said Lebovits would remain out of prison and under house arrest, on bail, as long as he continues to file his papers on time.
This fall, Lebovits applied for permission to leave his house arrest to attend synagogue during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
The request was granted.