By Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
December 20, 2011
Jewish Week uncovers press releases from 2009-'10; Hynes' office mum on possible policy change?
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes continues to refuse to reveal the names of 85 Orthodox Jewish child molesters his office claims have been arrested and charged through the Kol Tzedek program, a confidential hotline it established in March 2009.
Yet while Hynes' office has explained this refusal by citing the confidentiality rights of the victims, The Jewish Week has uncovered four press releases it issued as recently as 2010 naming convicted child molesters from the Brooklyn Orthodox community.
According to a Dec. 11 story in the New York Post, Hynes' office has been involved in the arrests of 85 alleged child molesters from the Brooklyn Orthodox community since January 2009. A spokesman for the DA told The Jewish Week that all of these arrests have come through Kol Tzedek, which was created in partnership with OHEL Children's Home and Family Services and other Jewish nonprofits to encourage ultra-Orthodox abuse victims to report these crimes to the secular authorities.
The Post story noted that of the 85 cases, 47 are still pending and 38 have been closed. It went on to elaborate that while 14 of the 38 closed cases resulted in jail time for the perpetrators, in the remaining 24 closed cases, the defendants "got probation, pleaded to minor charges, or saw their cases dismissed — often because victims or their parents backed out under community pressure."
A spokesman for Hynes' office provided The Jewish Week with the charges and sentences related to the 14 cases where the convicted child molesters received jail time, yet declined to provide the molesters' names or the case numbers. In the 24 cases involving probation, pleadings to lesser charges or dismissals, the spokesman declined to provide any information at all.
When asked why the DA's office does not publicize the names of, at a minimum, those among this group who have been convicted and/or sentenced, the spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, told The Jewish Week that "The Kol Tzedek Program is designed to encourage victims of sexual assault in the ultra-Orthodox community to come forward and report their abuse. 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."
This statement has confounded experts — and angered some advocates — who claim that the law cited by Schmetterer, which relates to the privacy rights of victims, does not prevent Hynes from releasing the names of convicted perpetrators. Adding to the confusion is the fact that this statement of policy is at odds with the office's recent practices.
For example, in June 2009 — two months after the formation of the Kol Tzedek program — the DA issued press releases about the convictions of two men from the Brooklyn Orthodox community: Bernard Mutterperl and Yona Weinberg, whom the DA's press release described as a "bar mitzvah tutor and licensed social worker." It also released a statement about a guilty plea by Stefan Colmer, who fled from Brooklyn to Israel but was extradited back to Brooklyn in 2009 under what the DA noted was a "new extradition treaty" with Israel. In 2010, the office released information on the conviction of Baruch Lebovits, characterized as a "rabbi and prominent businessman in the community."
An e-mail to Schmetterer asking whether the DA's policy on the release of this kind of information has changed recently received no response.
Some observers speculate that the DA's recent policy of not revealing these names is politically motivated. According to attorney and author Michael Lesher, who is currently involved in Freedom of Information Law litigation with Hynes' office, "Kol Tzedek is a political alliance between the District Attorney and Orthodox Jewish institutions in Brooklyn, notably OHEL, that have a long and appalling record of covering up child sex abuse charges."
"By insisting on keeping the current Orthodox sex abuse cases under wraps, OHEL and its allies simultaneously protect the perpetrators as much as they can and keep their own kid-glove treatment of offenders out of the public eye."
"If I'm wrong," Lesher added, "there's a very simple way to prove it. All the DA has to do is to open these case histories to the public [minus the identifying information of the victims]."
In fact, this is the approach taken by Queens DA Richard A. Brown. A spokesman for Brown's office told The Jewish Week that his office does "release the names of those who have been convicted of sex crimes as long as doing so [would not reveal the name of a victim]," as in cases of incest. The spokesman added that the DA grants press requests for copies of indictments — even in incest cases — but will redact victims' names and identifying information.
Because Hynes' office is refusing to release either names or case numbers, the public, including the press, has no way of requesting what are public records from the courts.
The lack of transparency on the part of Hynes' office is troubling to those who specialize in issues related to access to public information.
"As long as the case files are available at the courthouse, [the DA] is complying with the letter of the First Amendment," said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "[But] we always find it unfortunate when an elected official complies only narrowly with the letter of the law. We feel that the judicial system can work only with complete disclosure so that citizens are confident about what the government is doing in their name."
This information blackout is also disturbing to abuse survivors and advocates. Tim Walsh, an advocate and survivor of clergy abuse who has lobbied for years in Albany to strengthen laws protecting children, told The Jewish Week that, "I was raped by a 'man of God' [who was protected by the church]. And to think that now our civil system is protecting molesters [by not releasing their names] ... because of politics ... it's another level of betrayal and loss of power."
Walsh continued, "The DA's [refusal to release these names] is scary, an elected official who is supposed to protect all the people is protecting the few. It is unconscionable."