By Ray Rivera and Sharon Otterman (New York Times)
May 10, 2012
An influential rabbi came last summer to the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, with a message: his ultra-Orthodox advocacy group was instructing adherent Jews that they could report allegations of child sexual abuse to district attorneys or the police only if a rabbi first determined that the suspicions were credible.
The pronouncement was a blunt challenge to Mr. Hynes's authority. But the district attorney "expressed no opposition or objection," the rabbi, Chaim Dovid Zweibel, recalled.
In fact, when Mr. Hynes held a Hanukkah party at his office in December, he invited many ultra-Orthodox rabbis affiliated with the advocacy group, Agudath Israel of America. He even chose Rabbi Zweibel, the group's executive vice president, as keynote speaker at the party.
Mr. Hynes has won election six times as district attorney thanks in part to support from ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who lead growing communities in neighborhoods like Borough Park and Crown Heights. But in recent years, as allegations of child sexual abuse have shaken the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, victims' rights groups have expressed concern that he is not vigorously pursuing these cases because of his deep ties to the rabbis.
Many of the rabbis consider sexual abuse accusations to be community matters best handled by rabbinical authorities, who often do not report their conclusions to the police.
In 2009, as criticism of his record mounted, Mr. Hynes set up a program to reach out to ultra-Orthodox victims of child sexual abuse. Called Kol Tzedek (Voice of Justice in Hebrew), the program is intended to "ensure safety in the community and to fully support those affected by abuse," his office said.
In recent months, Mr. Hynes and his aides have said the program has contributed to an effective crackdown on child sexual abuse among ultra-Orthodox Jews, saying it had led to 95 arrests involving more than 120 victims.
But Mr. Hynes has taken the highly unusual step of declining to publicize the names of defendants prosecuted under the program — even those convicted. At the same time, he continues to publicize allegations of child sexual abuse against defendants who are not ultra-Orthodox Jews.
This policy of shielding defendants' names because of their religious status is not followed by the other four district attorneys in New York City, and has rarely, if ever, been adopted by prosecutors around the country.
Some sex-crime experts and former prosecutors said the policy contributed to a culture of secrecy in ultra-Orthodox communities, which made it harder to curb sexual abuse.
Mr. Hynes, through a spokesman, said he would not publicize information about specific accusations because he did not want to discourage victims from coming forward. But at least one ultra-Orthodox rabbi acknowledged asking him not to publicize these cases and said other rabbis had as well.
The number of sexual abuse cases involving children being prosecuted by Mr. Hynes's office is up sharply. But an examination by The New York Times shows that some of Mr. Hynes's claims about the Kol Tzedek program appear to be inflated.
Through an extensive search of court and other public records, The Times determined the names of suspects and other details in 47 of the 95 cases attributed to the Kol Tzedek program. More than half of the 47 seemed to have little to do with the program, according to the court records and interviews.
Some did not involve ultra-Orthodox victims, which the program is specifically intended to help. More than one-third involved arrests before the program began, as early as 2007. Many came in through standard reporting channels, like calls to the police.
While the 47 cases did include charges against camp counselors, yeshiva teachers and rabbis, they also included cases like that of a Borough Park cafe owner who was convicted of molesting a female Hispanic immigrant who worked for him.
At least three others were of ultra-Orthodox defendants who groped women on public transportation, including one Borough Park resident accused of placing his penis on a woman's shoulder. The woman immediately called the transit police.
Mr. Hynes would not be interviewed for this article. He has never publicly opposed the ultra-Orthodox Jewish position that a rabbi must first determine that an accusation of child sexual abuse is valid before the authorities are notified.
His aides acknowledged that Rabbi Zweibel informed him about Agudath's position last summer.
"D.A. Hynes did meet with Zweibel and told him he wouldn't interfere with someone's decision to consult with his or her rabbi about allegations of sexual abuse, but would expect that these allegations of criminal conduct be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities," said Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Mr. Hynes.
Prosecutors in the district attorney's office emphasized that the Kol Tzedek program, which has a hot line, a part-time social worker and links to social service agencies, demonstrated that Mr. Hynes cared deeply about the issue.
"This is an incredible success," said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of his sex crimes division. "I know how many cases we used to have before that. When I say a handful, I mean a handful every single year. It's ridiculous the difference we have that I see with my own eyes between before the start of Kol Tzedek and now."
Asked whether the office was exaggerating the program's impact, she said all of the victims involved took advantage of the program's services. "Our numbers are not inflated," she said. "If anything, they are conservative."
Still, some who have urged more aggressive prosecution said Mr. Hynes was too beholden to ultra-Orthodox rabbis for political support.
Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University was one of the few victims' advocates who attended the Hanukkah party in December.
"Basically, I looked around the room and the message that I got is: You are in bed with all the fixers in Brooklyn," Rabbi Blau said. "Nothing is going to change, because these people, the message they got is: These are the ones that count."
Potential Conflicts of Interest
David Zimmer was 25 when he groped a 9-year-old girl in a garage in Borough Park, court records said.
"She liked it," he later told the police.
He then took two sisters there, ages 9 and 10. In August 1998, he was accused of raping the 10-year-old, according to court documents.
The police arrested Mr. Zimmer that year, but the case's impact on the credibility of Mr. Hynes's office resonates today.
Back then, prosecutors seemed in a strong position, with a handwritten confession from Mr. Zimmer. Initially charged with more than 24 counts of sex offenses, he pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse in the first degree and received five years' probation.
Mr. Zimmer's lawyer was Asher White, who is married to Henna White, Mr. Hynes's longtime liaison to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Ms. White, an adherent of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, makes $138,000 a year, more than most of Mr. Hynes's prosecutors.
Ms. White organizes gatherings like the Hanukkah celebration, while overseeing the Kol Tzedek program. As a result, she has dual roles: she is supposed to encourage ultra-Orthodox victims to come forward despite opposition from some rabbis, even as she tries to maintain relationships with rabbis generally.
Ms. White and her husband declined to respond to questions about Mr. Zimmer's case, or to disclose whether they had discussed it with each other. Prosecutors said Ms. White had no involvement, but entanglements like these have long raised questions about how Mr. Hynes handles prosecutions in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Hopes that probation and treatment would lead to the rehabilitation of Mr. Zimmer were shaken when new accusations surfaced: A prosecutor this month told a judge that while working as a locksmith in recent years, Mr. Zimmer went into homes and repeatedly molested children who lived there. The police discovered that he had kept a diary detailing the many times that he had abused children, the prosecutor said.
He pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually abusing four girls, ages 6 to 10. He is being held on $1 million bond. Ms. Jaus said the original plea agreement was the best that the office could do because the victims' parents did not want them to testify.
"I have never received any pressure to do anything in a particular case," she said.
But the father of the first 9-year-old, who said he never knew about Mr. White's involvement, said he would have allowed his daughter to take the stand.
"The district attorney's office called me and said this guy's not 100 percent normal, so they were going to give him probation," said the father, who asked not to be identified to protect his daughter's identity. "If they don't want to prosecute, what are you going to do?"
Mr. Hynes often describes how, growing up in the only non-Jewish family in his building in Flatbush, he spent the Jewish Sabbath turning on lights for his Orthodox neighbors, who could not perform such tasks under Jewish law.
When he was the only non-Jew in a four-way Democratic primary in his failed 1994 bid for attorney general of New York State, he placed advertisements in Jewish publications signed by more than 150 Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders.
"I'm really the Jew in this race," he joked to a reporter for The Jewish Week. Referring to his opponents, he said, "I probably know more Yiddish than they do combined."
Mr. Hynes's attention to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has translated into votes. In 2005, when Mr. Hynes eked out a 42 percent to 37 percent victory in the Democratic primary for district attorney, he won in a landslide in several ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. In one election district in Williamsburg that is filled with Hasidic synagogues, Mr. Hynes pulled in 84 percent of the vote, according to election records.
The relationship has not always been smooth. He angered many of his closest ultra-Orthodox Jewish supporters in 1999 when he charged Bernard Freilich, a popular rabbi, with intimidating a witness in a sexual abuse case. Rabbi Freilich was acquitted the next year.
"I never knew of cases in which Joe Hynes bowed to community pressure," said Aaron Twerski, former dean of the Hofstra University School of Law, who had served with Rabbi Freilich as community advisers to Mr. Hynes. "He would listen, and if there were merit, he might rethink something, but Joe's his own man."
Brooklyn's highly cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — by some estimates, more than 200,000 people, the largest outside of Israel — would present challenges for any prosecutor. Informing on a fellow Jew to a secular authority is traditionally seen as a grave sin, and victims who do come forward can face intense communal intimidation to drop their cases.
In part for this reason, of the roughly 1,200 cases Mr. Hynes's sex crimes unit handles each year, few until recently involved ultra-Orthodox Jews, though experts said the rate of sexual abuse in these communities was believed to occur at the same rate as in society over all.
But even when Mr. Hynes's office did bring cases, they often ended in plea bargains that victims and their families believed were lenient. The Jewish Week, in a 2008 editorial, described Mr. Hynes's attitude toward these cases as "ranging from passive to weak-willed."
Rabbi Zweibel of Agudath Israel defended Mr. Hynes's record. "The D.A. has made a conscious effort to be sensitive to the cultural nuances of the different communities that he works with," said Rabbi Zweibel, though even he believes the names of those convicted should be publicized for the safety of the community.
Outreach Program Formed
Mr. Hynes seemed to turn a page in 2009 when he announced the creation of Kol Tzedek.
The announcement came in the wake of criticism after a 2008 plea deal he made with Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a grade school teacher at a Flatbush yeshiva who had been the subject of sexual abuse complaints to rabbinical authorities for more than 30 years.
In the plea deal, which at least one victim's father opposed, Mr. Hynes reduced two felony counts of sexual abuse to a single misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child. The rabbi received three years' probation and was not required to register as a sex offender.
"That case really got the advocacy movement rolling," said Mark Appel, founder of Voice of Justice, an advocacy group unrelated to the district attorney's program of the same name. "People were so angry."
Mr. Hynes's aides said they had made more than 40 presentations to community members promoting Kol Tzedek. And of the few cases that yielded convictions that The Times was able to identify, the outcomes were roughly similar to cases involving offenders who were not ultra-Orthodox. Still, the new effort has not quieted the criticism.
Marci A. Hamilton, a professor of constitutional law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, blamed Mr. Hynes for not speaking out against the ultra-Orthodox position that mandates that allegations must be first reported to rabbis. The position potentially flouts a state law that requires teachers, social workers and others to report allegations of sexual abuse immediately to the authorities.
She said Mr. Hynes was essentially allowing rabbis to act as gatekeepers.
"That's exactly what the Catholic Church did, what the Latter-day Saints did, what the Jehovah's Witnesses did," said Ms. Hamilton, author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."
Victims' rights groups say Mr. Hynes has also failed to take a strong stand against rabbis and institutions that have covered up abuse, and has not brought charges recently against community members who have sometimes pressed victims' families not to testify.
Ms. White, his liaison to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, said the district attorney had few options, in part because some victims declined to implicate those who threatened them, fearful that if they did, they would face even more pressure.
"I always feel so bad for those parents, because you watch the shock on their face when they find out that their child has been abused, and then they get all of the pressure," Ms. White said.
Mr. Hynes's refusal to publicize the names of people arrested through Kol Tzedek has deepened suspicions among victims' rights groups, while winning praise from some rabbis.
"I think that's where the rabbis put a little pressure on him," said Rabbi Shea Hecht, an informal adviser to Mr. Hynes. "I know I went to speak to him about that. I said 'Listen, you got to do the arrest, you go to do the investigation, but please don't give out the names before we know if the man is guilty.' "
In response to a Freedom of Information request by The Times, Mr. Hynes's office acknowledged that in the "vast majority of cases, the disclosure of a defendant's name would not tend to reveal the identity of the sex-crime victim."
But, the office said, because the ultra-Orthodox community is "very tight-knit and insular," there is "significant danger" that disclosure would cause victims to withdraw cooperation, making prosecutions "extremely difficult, if not impossible."
Several former prosecutors interviewed for this article said the policy seemed to make little sense.
"The idea is that the more information you give out, the more likely it is that victims might come forward with complaints," said Bennett L. Gershman, a former Manhattan prosecutor who specializes in prosecutorial conduct at Pace University Law School. "So the idea that a prosecutor would conceal this kind of information strikes me as illogical, and almost perverse."
Jo Craven McGinty, Griff Palmer and Tom Torok contributed reporting.