Law enforcement officials, legal experts, advocates and politicians have questioned why Brooklyn’s District Attorney arrested 85 Orthodox adults on child sex abuse charges but refuses to release their names.
In just three years, District Attorney Charles Hynes has arrested 83 Orthodox men and two women on charges including sexual abuse, attempted kidnapping and sodomy.
But when asked to reveal names — even of the 14 abusers who were convicted of sex crimes — Hynes refuses.
“Under the Civil Rights Law of New York State, we cannot release the names of any victim of sexual assault or any information that would tend to identify them,” said a spokesman for Hynes’s office. Yet, on December 14, Hynes issued a press release announcing the sentencing of Gerald Hatcher, 47, to 72 years in prison for raping his girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter. Hatcher “was living with his girlfriend and her daughter in their Bedford-Stuyvesant home,” the D.A.’s statement said. The neighborhood is largely non-Jewish.
Sex abuse specialists say prosecutors often withhold names because crimes involve family members, and naming the abuser may inadvertently reveal the identity of victims.
But Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who specializes in sex abuse cases, said the D.A. has arrested too many people for that to be the sole reason to maintain the Orthodox abusers’ anonymity.
“Something else is going on here that I don’t understand and I can’t quite explain,” said Anderson, who has worked on numerous clergy abuse cases and who recently filed a civil lawsuit in the Penn State University sex abuse case.
The Forward has pressed Hynes for weeks to confirm the stunning number of arrests of members of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities, first reported in the Forward on November 11. But the D.A.’s spokesman has not returned phone calls or e-mails requesting comment.
Instead, Rhonnie Jaus, the head of the sex crimes division in the District Attorney’s office, confirmed a figure of 85 arrests to the New York Post on December 11.
The arrests are a sharp contrast to a decade ago, when it was noteworthy if Hynes prosecuted any Orthodox sex abuse cases. In October 2009, Hynes made headlines after announcing the arrest of 26 Orthodox abusers over two years.
Hynes attributed the recent dramatic increase in arrests to Kol Tzedek, a hotline for Orthodox survivors to anonymously report abuse that he launched in January 2009.
Observers within and outside Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities agree that the religious culture of its residents confronts law enforcement authorities with special challenges in bringing sex abuse cases to justice. Leading rabbis may invoke Judaic religious laws such as mesirah — a prohibition against informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities — and the prohibition against lashon harah , evil gossip, as justification for not reporting abuse to law enforcement officials. Community members often feel religiously obligated to heed their rabbis, or face communal ostracism if they don’t.
Ocean County prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford, whose jurisdiction includes the heavily Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, N.J., said she was impressed that Hynes had persuaded so many victims to come forward. “I think it’s a very positive thing,” she said.
But she added that it was unusual to withhold the names of accused molesters. Once a person is arrested, Ford said her office treats each case as a public matter.
“While we would not release names of people merely being investigated for any criminal charge,” Ford said, “once somebody has been charged it’s certainly something that is a matter of public interest.”
“I don’t know that we’ve ever kept the name of a defendant in a case [secret],” she added, unless it is to protect the name of the victim.
Legal expert Marci Hamilton said Hynes’s refusal to release the names of the accused abusers is “shocking.”
Critics have long accused Hynes of being at the mercy of Brooklyn’s powerful rabbinic leaders and their bloc-voting Orthodox voters.
“Obviously, it has something to do with politics and being an elected official,” said Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University, “but it’s just wrong.”
She added: “Arrests are public information. At least, if the names of arrested individuals were public, parents would have a better shot of protecting kids than they do now, even if there weren’t a conviction.”
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind said the spike in arrests is a sign that progress is being made in combating abuse in a community that has been in denial for so long.
But Hikind added that he would like Hynes to release more information. “It isn’t like this is secret stuff,” Hikind said. “Why this is not public, I personally don’t understand.”
The Forward sent Hynes a list of questions on December 12, asking for details of the arrests and convictions and for clarification of his stance toward the Orthodox community’s reluctance to report abuse cases. Hynes answered only about half of the questions.
He supplied a list of 14 cases that ended in convictions, listing charges and sentences — ranging from one month to 20 years in jail — but not the names of those jailed.
Because 10 of the 14 pleaded guilty, it’s possible many cases were adjudicated away from the media spotlight.
In addition, 24 people were released on probation after pleading to reduced charges, or after their cases were dismissed. Again, it is likely these cases were not reported in the media.
Last month, the Forward combed through news reports and interviewed people who specialize in sex abuse cases, trying to piece together how many arrests there had been in recent years.
During the past two years, the Forward was able to find only nine reported arrests and three convictions of Orthodox men.
Of the 85 cases the D.A. has pursued, 47 remain open.
Again, the D.A. has withheld the names of the accused.
Hynes said that seven of the 85 accused had to register as sex offenders and that a further six will have to register upon release from jail. Again, he did not release the names of those offenders.
A search of the New York State sex offender registry revealed the names of at least six Orthodox men living in or near Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. But at least four of those six men were convicted of abuse before Kol Tzedek was launched.
Hynes declined to tell the Forward how many of the sex abuse cases closed so far involved plea deals to less serious charges.
He also declined to comment on the policy of Agudath Israel, the ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization that insists that anyone who suspects but has not actually witnessed sexual abuse of a child must consult a rabbi before reporting to the secular authorities.
Under such guidelines, a parent whose child tells them they have been abused must consult a rabbi before contacting police.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, said in an e-mail: “I have little doubt that if the recounting is credible and the child is not prone to lying or fantasizing, a consulted rabbi (with experience in such matters, which is specified as an important factor) would not hesitate to tell the parents that their child’s account should be acted upon.”
Community pressure is often seen as a major factor in families backing out of going to trial.
In a recent case in Lakewood, a family that brought charges against a camp counselor, Yosef Kolko, was subjected to a campaign of intimidation. A proclamation signed by nine Lakewood rabbis claimed the family had violated Jewish law by circumventing the rabbis and appealing directly to the secular authorities. As reported in the New York Jewish Week, a leading Brooklyn rabbi, Yisroel Belsky, published an open letter urging Lakewood residents to persuade the family to “retract their terrible deeds.”
Last year, Ford charged a Lakewood man, Shaul Luban, with witness tampering after he sent a text message to members of the community urging them to pressure the victim’s father not to co-operate with police. Luban ultimately paid a fine and had to perform community service.
The Forward asked Hynes whether he had done anything to combat witness intimidation. While admitting intimidation was a factor in some cases not going to trial, he said that “shame, embarrassment, fear of testifying at trial and the desire [of victims] to put the abuse behind them” are also factors.
“In addition, many parents do not want to put their children through the ordeal of testifying in a public trial,” Hynes said.
Survivor advocate Ben Hirsch said many of the families he speaks with are determined to take their cases to trial. But the D.A. often tries to persuade them to let perpetrators plead to lesser crimes.
“They do terrible, terrible plea deals,” said Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice. As evidence, Hirsch pointed to Yehuda Kolko a teacher accused of molesting boys at Yeshiva Torah Temimah, in Brooklyn.
Kolko, the uncle of Lakewood’s Yosef Kolko, was charged with sexual molestation of his students. But in April 2008, Hynes allowed Kolko to plead guilty to a lesser charge of child endangerment. Kolko ducked a jail sentence and avoided having to register as a sex offender. Some of Kolko’s victims are now pressing ahead with a civil case against the school, whose administrators, they allege, dismissed them when they sought to tell school authorities about being abused by him.
“We understand the difficulty the D.A. sometimes faces because it is true that many families are intimidated by rabbis and others,” Hirsch said. “What the community needs from the D.A. is a commitment to vigorously pursue those who would seek to intimidate victims and their families.”
In response to the Forward’s question about intimidation, Hynes said that any evidence his office received regarding any form of witness intimidation “is immediately pursued and investigated vigorously.”
The Forward knows of no cases in which the D.A. has prosecuted members of the Orthodox community for intimidating witnesses.