By Zoë Blackler (Guardian UK)
May 18, 2012
The Brooklyn district attorney has set up a taskforce to combat the intimidation of child sexual abuse victims in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community amid growing criticism of his handling of the issue.
In an interview on local New York television channel NY1, Charles Hynes said a cross-departmental team would meet next week to discuss how to "break down this wall of intimidation."
Campaigners have accused Hynes of failing to protect victims and their families after they report abuse to the secular authorities, and of being unwilling to challenge rabbinical leaders who want to cover up abuse allegations.
This week the Guardian detailed how the friends and family of an alleged victim had been repeatedly threatened and harassed by supporters of the accused.
The DA's move follows a suggestion by former New York City mayor Ed Koch that if Hynes fails to tackle the problem, the governor should intervene. In an op-ed first posted on Newsmax on Monday, Koch also called on Hynes to end his secrecy policy towards the ultra-Orthodox community. Hynes refuses to release the names of the now 97 individuals he says have been arrested through his Kol Tzedek programme, set up to address sexual abuse in the Orthodox community.
Koch wrote: "At this point, unless District Attorney Hynes announces that he will release the names of all defendants, including those of ultra orthodox Jews charged with child abuse — sexual or otherwise — and will pursue criminally anyone who engages in obstruction of justice, advising someone not to assist the police in their investigation of a child abuse incident, the governor should supersede him in these cases and appoint a special prosecutor to handle them."
Speaking on Friday after Hynes's announcement, Koch said he wanted to find a way to help the district attorney. "I believe that Hynes is an honourable man who wants to do the right thing. He's feeling a lot of heat, quite rightly, and therefore I expect him to move expeditiously," Koch said.
Koch said he would be checking in every couple of months to monitor Hynes's progress. "I'm not his boss, I'm not a judge but I will be checking in regularly to find out how far it's gone," he said.
Koch said he was not interested in an adversarial relationship, but if he feels the DA is not taking adequate steps, he will take his concerns to New York's Governor Cuomo.
The idea for a taskforce emerged during an email exchange between the pair.
Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, said he would welcome the opportunity to recommend experts to serve on Hynes's taskforce. "It is crucial that they include folks with a lot of experience handling these sorts of cases," Vieth said.
There are many child protection groups and experts who have experience working with similar communities, he said, such as the Boys Scouts of America, the Catholic Church, Penn State University, the US military and other tight-knit religious and immigrant communities.
Speaking to interviewer Errol Louis on NY1 last night, Hynes said the level of intimidation in the Orthodox Jewish community was greater than in organised crime, and that he was determined to clamp down on witness intimidation: "If someone doesn't want to report an abuse because of fear, how much luck am I going to have having them testify as to intimidation? So we've had a number of cases where we've asked victims to put a wire on and have a conversation with a religious leader and it has not worked out.
"The real problem is for people to understand [is that] I'm dealing with a community, some of who are absolutely hellbent on never allowing a victim to get the kind of justice we have available for them. And I won't tolerate it in Brooklyn."
Hynes also denied that he was allowing rabbis to decide which cases should be reported to the authorities. "I never gave them the opportunity to look at sex cases first ... It was never a suggestion by me that rabbis should filter cases. In fact I told [Rabbi David] Zwiebel, it's a very dangerous ground to be involved in. Because if a rabbi decides that he's going to tell someone not to go to secular authorities he could end up in handcuffs."
The DA recently turned down freedom of information law requests from the Guardian and a number of other papers for information about prosecutions through Kol Tzedek. He cited civil rights law that protects the identity of victims. But on NY1 last night he said that Susan Edelman, a reporter on the New York Post, had been to his office that afternoon to go through the 97 arrests.
The DA's spokesperson did not respond to a request for information.