By Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
May 20, 2014
In the wake of several recent sentences in cases involving the fervently Orthodox community, sex abuse survivors and activists are expressing concerns about the Brooklyn district attorney’s commitment to understanding and seeking substantive justice in that community.
Several weeks ago, a man who threw bleach in the face of anti-abuse activist Nuchem Rosenberg pleaded guilty to felony assault and received five years’ probation. The no-jail sentence for Meilich Schnitzler shocked and dismayed many in advocate and survivor circles, and prompted Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton to write a blog post in which she declared, “Instead of serving the years in prison the crime should have earned, Schnitzler confessed to throwing the bleach on Rosenberg and received nothing but unsupervised probation.”
The deal, Hamilton noted, “will hardly deter future violence against the survivors’ advocates.”
A spokesman for the DA, Kenneth Thompson, defended the deal, telling The Jewish Week that “given that it was the defendant’s first arrest and [Rabbi Rosenberg’s] injuries were not permanent” — something Rabbi Rosenberg disputes, claiming he requires daily eye drops to deal with persistent discomfort from the attack — a felony conviction with no jail time was a just outcome. The sentence was comparable, the spokesman said, to what someone outside the community would receive for a similar offense. This explanation appears consistent with Thompson’s oft-repeated campaign promise of “equal justice” for all of Brooklyn.
The spokesman added that the deal in no way “takes away from” the work Rabbi Rosenberg does to encourage and help “victims to come forward” and report abuse allegations to secular authorities.
While members of the chasidic community conceded to The Jewish Week that a felony conviction can and typically does have serious ramifications for someone living outside their community, all emphasized that for someone like Schnitzler, who works in his family’s business and has the support of many in his community, a felony conviction without jail time is virtually meaningless. Indeed, community members and observers alike expressed the view that a misdemeanor conviction with even minimal jail time would have served as much more of a deterrent, thereby making victims and whistleblowers feel safer.
According to Asher Lipner, a psychologist who treats survivors of sexual abuse in the frum community, “[The fact] that the violent physical assault on a leading advocate [resulted in no jail time] left a deep impression on many victims. What I see in my practice is that it is, unfortunately, less likely than ever that victims of sexual abuse will report their assaults to the police. They are even more scared of reporting their abuse than ever.”
More recently, a man named Yoel Malik pleaded guilty to violating a 13-year-old boy in a hotel room and received a 60-day jail sentence plus probation. The DA’s office did not respond to a request from The Jewish Week seeking more information about the reasons for the deal.
Defense attorneys for another chasidic child molester, Baruch Lebovits, invoked the Malik sentence last week in court to argue for a more lenient sentence for their own client.
Lebovits had been convicted of eight counts of sex abuse after trial in 2010 and sentenced to 10 ½ to 32 years in prison, but saw his conviction reversed in 2012 because of a prosecutor’s error and a new trial ordered.
Lebovits’ release from prison came immediately after another man, Samuel Kellner, was indicted for bribing a witness to falsely testify against Lebovits and attempting to extort the Lebovits family for $400,000. The case against Kellner fell apart last summer, and earlier this year prosecutors dismissed it, citing the lack of credibility of the witnesses against Kellner: Lebovits’ own son, Meyer; Moshe Friedman, a politically powerful and connected Lebovits supporter; and a young man, MT, who prosecutors had strong reason to believe was a genuine Lebovits victim who was manipulated in recanting his allegations and falsely accusing Kellner.
Last Friday, Lebovits pleaded guilty to the eight counts. While the DA had offered him two to six years years in prison, Lebovits ultimately received a two-year sentence, which, after credit for time served and time off for good behavior, could end up being only several months.
While the judge made it clear that his decision was based not on the Malik disposition but his own research into average sentences for similar crimes and other factors in the case (the victim entered into a non-disclosed settlement agreement regarding the abuse and, according to statements made by the defense, expressed satisfaction with the length of time Lebovits had already served), the resolution of the case prompted strong reactions from advocates and survivors. Many of them were less concerned with the length of the sentence than what they perceive to be Lebovits supporters’ unpunished corruption of the criminal justice system.
“The outcome of this case continues to send a message to victims of such heinous crimes that politics and money trump justice,” Chaim Levin, an abuse survivor and vocal advocate who supported Thompson for DA, told The Jewish Week.
“A concerned father [Samuel Kellner] who was looking out for his son and for others was labeled as a criminal and charged as such, while the real danger, Mr. Lebovits, lived freely with unfettered access to children.
“Lebovits’ admission of guilt is a good thing,” Levin continued, “but it pales in comparison to the amount of damage he has inflicted on tens, if not hundreds, of innocent young children. Despite this, Lebovits will still be given a hero’s welcome home while his victims are pushed deeper and deeper into a bubble of fear and intimidation that demands silence.
“I sincerely hope that this isn’t a preview into what the tenure of the new district attorney will look like,” Levin added.
“Many of us campaigned through blood and sweat to bring real change for victims of such crimes in Brooklyn and we hope that Mr. Thompson isn’t headed in the direction of his predecessor, Mr. [Charles] Hynes.”
Rabbi Yosef Blau, the director of religious guidance at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, feels that “the [Lebovits] plea bargain is disappointing, though it is not the victory claimed by Lebovits’ supporters.”
“What is most troubling,” Rabbi Blau told The Jewish Week, “is how poorly the case was handled: the apparent collusion between elements in the [former] Brooklyn DA’s office and Lebovits’ attorneys, and [the fact that prosecutors have not pursued evidence] of witness intimidation and tampering [in the case].”
Sex abuse survivor and advocate Joel Engelman agrees.
“I think that even though [DA Thompson’s] hands may have been tied regarding the plea deal, there is a lot more that he must do regarding the crimes and mismanagement surrounding the case. The flagrant perjury, witness intimidation, blackmail and bribery involved in this case must be tended to if the office of the DA wants to maintain any credibility. The victims of Lebovits’ crimes deserve a lot more than this mockery of justice.”