By Susan Edelman (NY Post)
December 11, 2011
Henna White straddles two worlds.As the Orthodox Jewish liaison for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, she has to coax reluctant child sex-abuse victims and their parents in the insular, strictly religious community to confront taboo issues so her boss can put molesters behind bars.
“Some people don’t even realize it’s a crime, that you go to the authorities with something like this,” she said.
White, 51, plays a key role in Hynes’ 3-year-old Project Kol Tzedek, Hebrew for “voice of justice,” a program to urge childhood sex-abuse victims in the Orthodox community to come forward.
It’s a huge challenge because ultra-Orthodox rabbis enforce a rule against reporting fellow Jews to secular authorities. Accusers are shunned for bringing shame on the community. It can wreck marriage prospects, bar kids from schools and ruin businesses.“It spreads through the community, and the whole family gets ostracized,” White said.
Kol Tzedek uses a confidential hot line staffed by an Orthodox social worker, where callers can speak anonymously for as long as they want.
“It took a lot of guts to pick up that phone and say, ‘I want to do something about it,’ ” White said.
When the callers feel comfortable enough to come in, White greets them.
“I am Orthodox myself. I know the community well, and people know who I am,” she said.
She strives to ease their anxiety.
“This is a community that doesn’t know the criminal-justice system, so you’ve got to spend time explaining everybody’s role,” White said.
“The first thing they say almost every time is, ‘Please don’t tell anybody. I don’t want to go public. Make sure this never goes to the press,’ ” she said. “I can’t begin to tell you how important that is.”
Hynes’ office does not alert the press on most arrests. It refused to name 85 Orthodox molesters arrested since the program started in January 2009, saying that might reveal victim identities.
White also coaches DA staff on Orthodox culture. For instance, modesty dictates that people don’t use words like “penis” or discuss sexual issues.
“A lot of children don’t have names for their body parts, and it’s not spoken about. We’ll say to an assistant district attorney, ‘Be careful what words you use.’ The parents are concerned we’re going to give their children words they’ve never heard.”
The staff also knows Jewish holiday dates and Sabbath timing, which helps kids pinpoint when events occurred.
"Parents are often very torn, yes, to have to put their child in a system where they're going to have to talk about it," White said.
It often differs with adolescents. “The kids are saying to to their parents, "I want this person arrested;'' Some children want to know that this person, who took away their innocence, is going to be punished for what they did to them.”
White admitted that a big frustration is that some cases collapse — sometimes after an arrest — because of outside intimidation.
“We have victims who back out. Somebody who was very interested in going ahead and working with us, suddenly they stop calling back — we can’t reach them. What we believe is they’re getting pressured,’’ she said.
“If we lose the victim, we lose the case.”